Off the coast of Spain, studies of the marine microbiome are opening new doors for pharmacology, writes Claudia Alemañy Castilla.

The island of Tabarca, near Alicante, is a tourist magnet. It’s also a working platform for the study of marine microbiomes and their potential for new drug discovery.

Numerous studies have highlighted the potential of oceanic microorganisms. In scientific journal Microbial Biotechnology, expert Fernando de la Calle claims they contain “molecules, proteins, lipids and other classes of compounds that could provide innovative drugs, improved enzymes, biopolymers and novel biomaterials”.

Dr Josefa Antón has dedicated more than two decades to finding out. As director of the Molecular Microbial Ecology Group at the University of Alicante, she leads research dedicated to the analysis of microorganisms associated with marine invertebrates – such as ascidians and corals – and viruses from hypersaline environments. She collaborates on these projects with other experts, Esther Rubio-Portillo and Alfonso Ramos

For the scientist, the locations offered by the Alicante coast have an added value for this type of research. On the one hand, it has natural ecosystems in a good state of conservation. It also has a variety of human constructions, such as ports, which facilitate the study of the marine microbiome.

“We want to study the marine invertebrates that are almost pollutants, so to speak, of anthropogenic structures. By sampling these animals, we are not causing damage to the system,” explained Dr Antón.

To facilitate this, experts are looking for more sustainable and environmentally friendly ways to conduct research, while also delivering better results. One of these is Bluetools, a group to which Dr Antón belongs and to which she has contributed several results.

Bluetools and the challenge of sustainable research

The Bluetools project aims to develop methods and tools for the efficient, safe, and sustainable use of marine microbiomes. It is backed by five leading European companies, eight university teams and a private registered training organisation.

Members of the Molecular Microbial Ecology group at the University of Alicante have worked with Bluetools to characterise the metagenome of dried Posidonia beds left on the beach. According to the studies, these can be used as a source of compounds with added value in the pharmaceutical and industrial sectors.

Another member of the scientific consortium is Prozomix. The UK company has a technology that can be used to screen the genomes of bacteria and other micro-organisms that are considered unique.

“Our main achievements have been the discovery and HT cloning of more than 6,000 new metagenomic enzymes from UK biodiversity, resulting in a large number of high impact publications in journals such as Nature, Nature Chemistry, JACS, Angewandte, ChemSusChem, etc,” says Dr James Finnigan, the company’s technical director.

As a result of these innovations, Prozomix, along with GSK, the University of Manchester and the University of York, received a Royal Society of Chemistry award for the discovery of IREDs.

“Prozomix’s role at Bluetools is the discovery and production of novel metagenomic biocatalysts from UK marine samples. These biocatalysts, such as KREDs, PNPs, NDRTs, IREDs and EREDs, are characterised in-house or with our project partners,” concludes Dr Finnigan.

Microbiome applications

The interaction between the different research groups involved in the study of marine microorganisms is one of the main strengths of Bluetools, according to Dr Antón.

“In the case of Posidonia, we have described the presence of genes involved in the synthesis of products that may be of interest as antimicrobials, for example, and also in the synthesis of enzymes that are involved in the metabolism of carbohydrates, which is of great interest in various industries,” she points out.

The field of marine microbiome research has produced promising results. These include possible treatments against the resistant fungus C. auris or to stop melanomas. The existence of consortia such as Bluetools, which applies an ecological and multidisciplinary approach to research, will be crucial for a better development of this area of science.