Human Health

From research to problem solving: Human health solutions

The biodiversity of the ocean is, in some ways, an untapped resource. Microbes, their interactions, and their genetics contain information and materials that hold promise to benefit human health. The Provasoli-Guillard National Center for Marine Algae and Microbiota (NCMA) houses one of the world’s largest and the most diverse collections of marine phytoplankton, with about 3,000 strains of phytoplankton, bacteria, and viruses from around the world. This incredible resource drives many important applied research efforts.

The NCMA, directed by Dr. Mike Lomas, is collaborating with a number of national and international companies to identify an optimized source of phytoplankton derived lipids (fats) and other important metabolites. This project involves several steps, including bioprospecting of the NCMA algal collection to identify strains that produce the specific lipid of interest, working with Bigelow Analytic Services and their advanced mass spectrometric analysis capabilities to quantify the lipid of interest and other metabolites, and growing the algae at pilot scale to determine if the lipid can be extracted and purified in an economically viable manner. The NCMA also is an active part of the continuing five-year collaboration between Bigelow Laboratory and the University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy, where they are screening for compounds that might one day be used as novel anti-microbials or to treat malaria and other diseases. Collaborations such as these between NCMA and private industry are fostering not only innovative uses for marine microbes, but potentially yielding important medical breakthroughs.

While marine algae can be utilized for positive benefits to humanity, Dr. Cindy Heil’s research focuses on the harmful effects of the algal species Karenia brevis and potential methods to manage and mitigate these effects. This plant-like organism causes a bloom, also known as a red tide, and produces a suite of potent neurotoxins, which cause gastrointestinal, neurological, and respiratory problems in humans and are responsible for large die-offs of marine organisms and seabirds. Heil recently co-edited a special edition of the scientific journal Harmful Algae, which synthesized six years of red tide research conducted as a multi-partner project under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Ecology and Oceanography of Harmful Algal Bloom program. The goal of the research was to understand which nutrients supported red tides and the extent to which coastal pollution might be contributing to red tides. This vast compilation of research is being actively used to help inform management recommendations on how to control nutrient sources into coastal waters and to identify ways to improve forecasting models to better predict red tides. Heil and Dr. Mike Lomas were recently awarded a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to develop the first U.S. harmful algae taxonomic identification course for federal and state harmful algal bloom managers, in recognition of Bigelow Laboratory’s vast expertise and resources in marine algae.

Bigelow Laboratory’s investigation into the role of the ocean’s tiny giants is reaping important results. Not only are we increasing understanding of the important role microorganisms play in maintaining planetary balance, we are also finding ways to harness their power in creating natural products, as food and fuel sources, and as potential remedies for diseases.