The SeaBioTech survey, which launched in 2012, will sweep the world's oceans for biomolecules which could benefit the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries.
Along with ambitious medical and pharmaceutical aims, they are interesting in finding substances similar to the anti-ageing skincare ingredient Venuceane, a biotechnological product patented by the company Sederma.
The project will collect components for medical purposes such as anti-inflammatories and antibiotics, which can be used in cosmeceutical products.
One of their goals is to find similar additives to Venuceane, a skincare ingredient cultivated from eubacteria which boosts the body's natural defenses and drastically slows down the appearance of ageing.
Brian McNeil, the project coordinator, commented: “It’s open ended at this stage, but we are interested in looking for something like venuceane, which is used to create very highly effective skin creams.”
“Unlike most creams, this product shows very strong results and can improve skin quality long term.”
The power of sponges
The team will target the oceans’ micro-environments, and anticipates finding new bioactive components in areas such as the internal bio-films of sea sponges. They will use methods such as a remote-controlled submarine to search likely sites for biomolecules.
Sponges are soft-bodied and seemingly vulnerable to microorganisms, yet do not often suffer from infections. The SeaBioTech researchers therefore believe that they contain organisms which protect them from attack.
McNeil said: “The problem with the marine environment is that it is massive- you can waste a lot of resources searching. We therefore decided to focus on micro-environments like marine sponges.”
“These organisms have bio-films which contain bacteria, yeast and fungi which inhibit predation and infection, which we believe may be useful in the biotech industry.”
The problem of intellectual property rights concerning organisms taken from the sea has recently attracted media attention, with a lecturer from the University of Leuven in Belgium describing current laws as: “an uncoordinated and complex mixture of legal domains.”
McNeil said that his team had no legal problems due mainly operating in EU waters. He criticized taking samples of bioactive materials without giving any benefits to the indigenous population as “biopiracy.”
He said: “The law at the moment is a bit vague and a bit lax. There are four main consortia which deal with this and the EU is currently encouraging them to work together to develop tighter legislation.”