Written by Emma Bolton and Nadine Greenhalgh, Basecamp Research
Oceans and their rich biodiversity have long been integral to humanity’s development, as our dependence on the sea is wide-ranging and richly layered, from transport routes to cultural practices. With climate, pollution, and biodiversity crises looming, humanity has the opportunity to turn to the oceans for a path forward. The sea offers a wealth of biodiversity, with millions of species holding unexplored genetic and chemical diversity which can support the Blue Economy and global health . Encoded amongst the genomes of these organisms may be proteins that can be used to solve our biggest global challenges, from breaking down plastics to sequestering carbon.
Changing the Narrative on BioDiscovery
Nature has long been the solution to many of our world's greatest challenges. The first antibiotic, penicillin, was discovered serendipitously in Sir Alexander Fleming’s London laboratory when a fungal contaminant landed on an open plate and was observed to inhibit bacterial growth . Additionally, Taq polymerase, the enzyme that has revolutionised the widely-used molecular biology technique PCR by providing stability through high temperatures, was discovered in the bacteria Thermus aquaticus in a hot spring in Yellowstone National Park. Despite the importance of these incredible discoveries, biodiscovery efforts historically have been disconnected, with a gulf between biodiversity and biotechnology. We see this in Yellowstone National Park, where despite the phenomenal commercial success of Taq polymerase, the park did not receive any compensation for its role in facilitating the discovery by protecting and allowing scientists access to the geothermal habitats in which Thermus aquaticus and many other unique thermophiles thrive .
These, and other examples, inspired Basecamp Research to work towards accelerating global biodiscovery. Our mission is underpinned by the 1992 Convention of Biological Diversity and the Nagoya Protocol, an international legal instrument for the conservation of biodiversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilisation of genetic resources. Through mutually beneficial collaborations, Basecamp Research is bridging the gap between biodiversity and biotechnology, building a biodiversity value chain that ensures fair and equitable benefits resulting from the utilisation of genetic resources.
Partnering with Heritage Malta to Explore the Marine Environment
We were keen to find partners equally curious about underexplored marine environments and eager to support access and collaboration in marine biodiversity research. In this effort, we were fortunate to become acquainted with the scientists, curators, and historians at Heritage Malta’s Underwater Cultural Heritage Unit. In early 2023 we began planning a collaborative biodiversity project based around shipwrecks and crashed aircraft sites under its management. Basecamp Research’s initiatives dovetailed perfectly with Heritage Malta’s Humboldtian approach to underwater heritage management. Their Underwater Cultural Heritage Unit team, led by Timmy Gambin, has been wonderful in the conceptualisation and design of this innovative undertaking.
Malta’s incredibly rich historical past is mirrored in the diversity of its underwater heritage.
This legacy is fundamental to the Maltese community and its sense of national identity. The concentration of submerged cultural assets makes the seabed around the Maltese Islands an ideal ‘lab’ to explore how anthropogenic inputs impact natural biotic assemblages. As part of Basecamp Research and Heritage Malta’s collaborative biodiversity agreement, Basecamp Research provided Heritage Malta with a portable molecular biology DNA laboratory, training, and employment in advanced DNA technologies, augmenting their ability to monitor the seabed.
How can shipwreck remains from past societies affect our present and future health?
During this collaboration, rebreather divers collected sediment samples from eleven wreck sites that lay up to 106m deep on the seabed around Malta. The samples were taken at varying proximities to the wreck sites, with the objective of understanding how the microbial diversity & ecosystem functioning is influenced by the presence of wrecks and the associated buried weapons and explosives. Sample collection involves gathering a tablespoon of sediment -- genetic sequencing only requires a small volume, helping mitigate its environmental impact. DNA sequencing technology characterises microbial communities by reading the individual strands of DNA in these samples - this information will help us understand how the microbial diversity changes with wreck site & depth whilst also discovering novel proteins and biochemistries that could emphasise the importance and value of marine ecosystems. Working with Heritage Malta, we’re also furthering our understanding on how buried explosives could be impacting the marine microbial ecosystem.
From this partnership, Heritage Malta’s biodiversity priorities included increasing the awareness of the heritage and legacy of Malta’s archaeological sites, implementing new technologies for biodiversity monitoring, and advancing cutting-edge research.
Beyond the Mediterranean
It is estimated that marine microorganisms make up 70% of the ocean’s biomass, and roughly half of the world's total biodiversity, yet 95% of the ocean remains unexplored, uncharted, and unseen . Over billions of years of evolution, the marine microbiome has generated extensive arrays of genetic diversity, offering a huge untapped resource for novel compounds that could be applicable for sustainable biotechnological solutions.
Sea sponges, for example, serve as a natural pharmacy, harbouring unique genomes and an ecosystem of symbionts that together express an array of bioactive compounds that have been found to have antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory properties among others .
Prioritising marine research and development efforts are crucial to explore the diversity of marine microbes and unlock the potential to create sustainable, biology-based solutions. While the marine world presents a rich genetic resource for novel compounds, access to these resources needs to be managed to ensure their sustainable and equitable use.
Data sharing and reactive sampling to tailor specific research projects are crucial to advancing marine research. Basecamp Research is establishing a baseline reference atlas of microbial biodiversity spanning diverse ecosystems worldwide, and we share data reports with our biodiversity partners through access and benefit sharing collaborations to expand knowledge of our earth's ecosystems.
By implementing new technologies, local communities are given the resources to study their biodiversity, providing scientists and stakeholders with a non-invasive, cost-effective method for conservation monitoring.
Basecamp Research aims to identify novel applications from these marine samples for sustainable biotechnological applications. In the event of commercialisation of protein sequences identified from the samples collected in this collaboration, Basecamp Research will share a portion of the related revenue with Malta. By connecting biodiversity research and conservation organisations with biotechnology companies, Basecamp Research is creating a biodiversity value chain to protect our natural world and build a sustainable future for all.
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