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, they can also sometimes have harmful effects. Algae in the ocean support ecosystems by processing nutrients and feeding animals — but some also produce toxins. When large numbers of these species grow, or bloom, toxins can move up the food chain and accumulate to harmful levels in fish, shellfish, and mammals.

Bigelow Analytical Services works with Maine Department of Marine Resources, and other groups around the the country, to monitor for harmful algal blooms so that fisheries can be temporarily closed when toxins are prevalent. Drs. Steve Archer and Peter Countway also conduct research to understand the underlying causes of harmful algal blooms to inform prevention, prediction, and management efforts.

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.