€9m EU project on deep-sea organisms under way

19 February 2013 | News story

IUCN is supporting the PharmaSea project which will bring European researchers to some of the deepest, coldest and hottest places on the planet.

Scientists from the UK, Belgium, Norway, Spain, Ireland, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Denmark will work together to collect and screen samples of mud and sediment from huge, previously untapped, oceanic trenches.

The large-scale, four-year project is backed by more than €9.5 million of EU funding and brings together 24 partners from 14 countries from industry, academia and non-profit organisations.

The PharmaSea project focuses on biodiscovery research and the development and commercialisation of new bioactive compounds from marine organisms, including deep-sea sponges and bacteria, to evaluate their potential as novel drug leads or ingredients for nutrition or cosmetic applications.
 
The international team of scientists is led by Professor Marcel Jaspars of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, and coordinated by Dr Camila Esguerra of the University of Leuven in Belgium.

One of the aims of PharmaSea is to discover new marine bacteria that can produce novel antibiotics: "There’s a real lack of good antibiotics in development at the moment. There hasn’t been a completely new antibiotic registered since 2003. If nothing is done to combat this problem we’re going to be back to a ‘pre-antibiotic-era’ in around 10 or 20 years, where bugs and infections that are currently quite simple to treat could be fatal", says Marcel Jaspars, who is Professor of Chemistry and Director of the Marine Biodiscovery Centre at the University of Aberdeen. PharmaSea will also focus on drug discovery for neurological, inflammatory, and other infectious diseases.

Only a handful of samples have ever been taken from deep trenches and investigated, so the project is breaking new ground. "PharmaSea will not only be exploring new territory at the bottom of the oceans, but also new areas in ‘chemical space’. With our broad platform of cutting-edge bioassays to detect drug-like activity, we'll be testing many unique chemical compounds from these marine samples that have literally never seen the light of day. We're quite hopeful that we'll find a number of exciting new drug leads", says Dr Camila Esguerra, Industrial Research Fellow and Lecturer with the Laboratory for Molecular Biodiscovery at the University of Leuven.

Marine organisms that live at depths of more than 2,000 metres are considered to be an interesting source of novel bioactive compounds as they survive under extreme conditions.

"Trenches are separated from each other and represent islands of diversity. They are not connected to each other and life has evolved differently in each one," explains Marcel Jaspars.

IUCN, through its Environmental Law Centre, will support the project by participating in an advisory panel of policy and legal experts who will identify and analyse policy and legal barriers to access and sustainable use of marine genetic resources. IUCN will also contribute to case studies and best practices on access and benefit-sharing (ABS) and intellectual property rights (IPR), and organize one of the project's two multi-stakeholder workshops. It will also help develop an information toolkit.

Further information: http://www.pharma-sea.eu


This image shows the courtship behavior of Indian Bull frogs (Holobatrachus tigerinus). During the monsoon, the breeding males become bright yellow in color, while females remain dull. The prominent blue vocal sacs of male produce strong nasal mating call.