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Marine biotechnology: a new focus at the National Research Council's Atlantic Research Laboratory in Halifax.

The Atlantic Research Laboratory (ARL), one of 15 divisions and institutes of the National Research Council of Canada, has long been recognized as a world leader in the marine biosciences, especially in the area of marine plants. Established in 1952 on the Dalhousie University campus, the laboratory also operates an Aquaculture Research Station 30 km from Halifax on the Atlantic coast.

Recently designated NRC's lead research facility in marine biotechnology, the Halifax lab joins the NRC's Division of Biological Sciences in Ottawa, Biotechnology Research Institute in Montreal and Plant Biotechnology Institute in Saskatoon as a fully-integrated member of NRC's Biotechnology Programme.

Marine biotechnology is a relatively new area of science. To date, most of the world's useful chemicals have been derived from land-based organisms. Our understanding of plants and animals from the ocean, compared to terrestrial organisms, is relatively slight. However, scientists have discovered more than 1,700 new, potentially useful chemicals from marine organisms over the past few years.

The possibility for economic benefits from marine biotechnology could be very large over the next decade, notes ARL director-general Roger Foxall. "It is a very exciting area and the potential is enormous," he says. "However, marine biotechnology is about 10 years behind its terrestrial counterpart. Marine scientists have a lot of catching up to do."

Making more economic use of the oceans and maintaining or improving the quality of the marine environment have now become the prime areas of focus for scientists at ARL. Marine biotechnology requires a multidisciplinary approach and the staff of 75 includes the essential disciplines biology, molecular biology, biochemistry, analytical chemistry and natural products chemistry. Scientific teams work together under one roof to address specific problems or opportunities.

The lab plans to build on well-established credentials in marine plant research and organic analytical chemistry by adding the specialized tools and techniques characteristic of biotechnology. Traditional strengths are being refocussed in the areas of molecular genetics, biochemistry, cell biology and enzymology, cultivation of marine organisms as sources of valuable products, and the development of new methods in organic analytical chemistry.

The biotechnology research will concentrate on marine algae and marine micro-organisms while organic analytical chemistry will include work related to measuring the health of the oceans. However, scientists will not be limited entirely to marine research. When appropriate, they will be encouraged to collaborate with the other NRC biotechnology divisions in applying their expertise and knowledge to a broad spectrum of biotechnology problems.

When using the oceans, one important focus is the search for useful chemicals in marine organisms. ARL scientists are looking for bioactive compounds with properties such as anti-viral, anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, cytotoxic or pesticidal activity. They have already found several promising chemicals. One recent discovery, for example, appears to be active against Herpes virus in a test tube.

Researchers from the laboratory were also responsible for isolating and identifying domoic acid, the toxin that suddenly and mysteriously began to contaminate mussels from Prince Edward Island waters late in 1987. Research into this and other shellfish toxins continues to be a major thrust of the laboratory.

Marine plants are a large part of the laboratory's research programme, especially commercially valuable species such as the carrageenan and agar producing red seaweeds. Aquaculture techniques and new strains are developed and refined at the laboratory's Aquaculture Research Station. A computerized sensor system has recently been added to the station's experimental tanks to better control factors affecting plant growth. Aquaculture technology developed at ARL is transferred to industry on both the east and west coasts.

The Marine Biosciences Programme is also being organized to develop the various aspects of the technology needed for genetic studies of marine plants. Marine bioscientists are already working at the molecular level, doing fundamental research that is expected to lead to the eventual genetic engineering of marine plant strains for enhanced aquaculture. Researchers are currently involved in gene sequencing of marine algal groups and have produced the world's first cell suspension cultures from red macroalgae. These show promise in providing host cells for genetic engineering and gene expression studies.

Controlling pollution of coastal waters and understanding the role of oceans in global change is as important as focussing on marine organisms as a source of economic activity. The Marine Analytical Chemistry Standards Programme develops marine standards and reference materials for analysts working in ocean-related research and industry. Samples include calibration standards as well as reference materials for determining levels of organic compounds and trace metals in sea-water, marine sediments and marine biological tissue. The programme's standards and reference materials are well regarded and used by scientists world-wide.

The scientific team approach at the laboratory is enhanced by powerful and modern instrumentation. This combination of multi-disciplinary expertise and state-of-the-art instruments makes it unique among marine biotechnology facilities in the world. Capabilities include high performance liquid chromatography, gas chromatography, mass spectrometry, nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometry, infra-red spectroscopy and scanning/transmission electron microscopy.

Key instruments include a VG Analytical ZAB-EQ hybrid tandem mass spectrometer, Bruker MSL-300 and AMX-500 MHz NMR spectrometers, and a recently acquired SCIEX API III mass spectrometer which allows scientists to perform liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry on complex biological molecules.

Marine biotechnology is growing in world importance, with many other countries actively engaged in the field. Japan has recently declared marine biotechnology critical to its economic future. The US recently founded two new marine biotechnology institutes, at the University of Maryland and the University of California at Santa Barbara. Norway, France and Australia have also declared commitments to marine biotechnology.

The laboratory's marine biotechnology leadership within NRC will be national in scope with a mandate to undertake, assist and promote research of economic and social benefit to Canada. In particular, the research will emphasize the development of new products, processes and techniques to help Canadian industry become more competitive.

The Atlantic Research Laboratory is already undertaking collaborative projects with numerous partners in industry, government and universities. Given the new research focus on deriving economic benefits from marine biotechnology, the laboratory is now actively seeking more industrial partners with whom to work in exploiting new opportunities.

... "The oceans are the last major biological frontier to be explored for resources and applications," says Foxall. "The Atlantic Research Laboratory's new status is a clear indication of Canada's commitment to this new and exciting field of science."
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Author:Isaacs, Frances
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Date:May 1, 1990
Previous Article:Monitoring Atlantic shellfish toxins.
Next Article:Shellfish toxin research at the NRC Atlantic Research Laboratory.

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