8th BioMarine International Business Convention
1-3 oct 2017, Rimouski Qc, Canada View Location

Jun 25

Interview Dr Johanna Wesnigk & Meredith LLoyd Evans – Marine Biotech for health

Interview from  Pierre Erwes, Chairman BioMarine: In a few words could you tell us who you are?

Dr Johanna Wesnigk:  I am a project manager for European research projects focussing on marine environmental, genomic and biotechnological issues. My background is in bioremediation and marine microbiology.

Meredith LLoyd Evans: I run a biosciences innovation consultancy that specialises in challenging new areas, of which blue biotech and industrial biotech are two. My background is in the pharmaceutical industry, veterinary medicine, IP management and general technology consultancy.

PE to Johanna.  For our audience could you explain the scope of marine genomics in our biomarine industry?

With Marine Genomics we can mine data, not resources. This is important, as strong points for using marine resources are the high bio- and chemical diversity in the sea, many bio-active substances are in use in the fight for survival. However, it is hard to get sufficient quantities of the resources, it’s expensive to extract them, and the harvest  of commercially useful amounts is neither sustainable nor guaranteed over time.

Marine genomics can help us with the following issues:

  1. Better understanding of marine ecosystems, enhanced through in-depth knowledge of the molecular repertoire of marine organisms.
  2. Insights into the large number of genes with unknown functions and possibilities to use this potential for us.
  3. Utilisation of novel variations of known enzymes with improved characteristics (cold- heat-pressure stability, inert to saline environment, e.g. in the EU-funded Mamba project).
  4. Determining optimum expression conditions (examples could be nitrogen limitation or light stimulation) to avoid costly high-throughput screening.

Marine environmental genomic information thus can also enable better cultivation of interesting microorganisms to learn more about their exotic enzymes which then could be heterologously expressed in the known microbial workhorses, or if we are ambitious and patient enough, in new model marine microorganisms.

PE to Meredith: BioBridge is a relay between research and industry. How do you see marine genomics applied research in major developments of tomorrow’s biomarine industry?

Johanna has highlighted the main attractions; the key is to marry together some interesting industrial needs with the possibilities we have. Needs we know about include new enzymes for green applications – biocatalysis, avoidance of petroleum-dependency, reduced energy and carbon use; new therapeutic agents for difficult diseases (not just cancers); and robust and novel materials, some of which may even be capable of taking their place in nanotechnology and new data-processing methods, as well as for industrial and medical uses. Exploring Blue Biotech also gives scope for innovation in the important support areas of laboratory-based analytical technologies, micro-engineering and microfluidics, extreme-environment engineering and new bioprocess systems.

In all of these, marine genomics plays a role – in identifying the targets, in collaborating with modern genetic engineering and synthetic biology, in ensuring that engineering innovation is appropriate, in addition to stimulating the search to pin down what previously unknown genes may actually do.

PE to Meredith. Most of the projects in marine genomics are conducted by innovative SMEs, unfortunately after a few years they tend to disappear. What is the blocking factor to their development and what are the winning strategies for SMEs in Europe versus North America.

The blocking factor in Europe is usually insufficient funding for the pre-profit trajectory of a company. Those that focus on using marine genomics as a service or contract research tool may indeed survive because of this, since they can achieve cash-flow if they are effective as deliverers of what industry wants. I generally take it as a ‘rule of thumb’ that the US has at least 10 times as much money available for investment in start-ups and is several times more willing to invest in innovation than is the case in Europe. Also, there is a strong support in USA for government-funded SME links with innovative research, to embed new science in companies. National and EU funding in blue biotech has been poorly correlated and aligned in the past; SMEs often found it hard to be involved in and benefit from EU consortia, for example. This is hopefully changing.

PE to Johanna. MG4U is a European project dedicated to marine genomics. Could you tell us what are the main points of interests and what is at stake?

MG4U is “Marine Genomics for Users” in full. Our remit is to spread knowledge on the manifold outcomes of national and international research projects on marine -omics, from the FP6 Network of Excellence MGE to new large projects like the French Oceanomics and the European Micro B3. We are addressing marine researchers, policy makers and especially industry, potentially interested in the many innovative developments for diverse sectors. Tools within MG4U are a knowledge database, workshops and training courses, dedicated MG sessions at conferences and establishing/furthering one-to-one contacts between academia and industries.

PE to Johanna: when it comes to the necessary tools used in marine genomics Bioinformatics is always top of the list. Could you explain the concept?

In -omics you have to deal with increasingly large amounts of sequence data, esp. since the high-throughput and next-generation sequencing technologies have taken over and data are “exploding”. Thus novel bioinformatics techniques and infrastructures are urgently needed to turn data into sensible information and into knowledge. This ranges from data- and quality management (cleaning), aligning, annotating the raw data; to data-mining, text-mining, data integration, statistics and modelling tasks. To make ultimate sense and predict, e. g. novel functions of genes, genomic data need to be merged with environmental, biological and biochemical knowledge. This has led to a new discipline called environmental bioinformatics, which will be addressed in the Micro B3 project. Starting out as a set of techniques bioinformatics has become a technology and a new research discipline. Also companies are emerging to provide bioinformatics services.

PE to Meredith & Johanna: In October in London both of you will be involved in one of the Biomarine Think-tanks on marine biotechnology. What do you expect from such a brainstorming?

We are working together to encourage industry to propose strategic needs where a better understanding of genes and their functions is going to make a difference. One outcome should be enhanced understanding between industry and academia of marine-genomic based processes of interest leading to industrial bio-products. Also, part of the function of a think-tank like this is to create new contacts and networks, with a view for future activities. So, questions to answer are

what are topics/areas/ approaches for industry-academia cooperation for marine biotechnology, and

how can typical problems i.e. those between industry and researchers or those facing               industry in establishing new developments be solved or avoided?

We also see that big industry understands and uses genomics in many ways already, so we want to investigate not only

what the overall research needs of industry are but also

how SMEs can be enabled to use the marine bioresources potential, and

what kind of research collaboration they are open for, and what they would pay for?

We need to define the exact area in this value chain, where academia can hand over research results to industry. At the moment it seems too often that industry wants things ‘on a plate’ – which is far too far along the chain, and too expensive, for most research innovators to achieve, even with government funding support for collaborations.

Finally, we will use the think-tank to set some of the agenda items and identify some of the contributors for the BioMarine 2013 conference.

PE to Johanna: You are familiar with European project funding processes. Do you know if marine genomics is still a priority for the European Commission? Could you elaborate?

In the final stages of FP7 marine biotechnology and environmental genomics can be found as part of many medium and large projects, in the Ocean of Tomorrow calls, as well as in dedicated KBBE and a few environmental calls. In basic research funding the ERC (European Research Council) grants often include -omics elements as they are an integral part of many marine, environmental and life sciences research questions.

As to the future within Horizon 2020, not too much detail has been put down yet. The ERC grants will continue, with the new team “Synergy” grants potentially enabling even larger ‑omics projects to be tackled. Marine and maritime research will be a part of the KBBE societal challenge sub-programme, thus applied projects will become stronger. Finally biotechnology is named as one of the Key Enabling Technologies, with marine input as a potentially very innovative element in technology development, as we tackle very diverse taxa from which are emerging new model species and novel knowledge, e.g. on evolution for certain biotech applications.

So there are three major opportunities for marine -omics to be funded, from creating new knowledge, to addressing societal challenges, all the way to biotech demonstration plan(t)s.