As part of the One Ocean Hub, a new interdisciplinary study is being undertaken on marine biodiscovery in South Africa and Namibia through UCT’s Bio-economy Chair, with the team comprising Professor Rachel Wynberg, postdoc Dr Jessica Lavelle and PhD student Jen Whittingham. Inspired by the findings of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy which highlighted the astounding diversity of the ocean genome and the potential applications of its use for society, we seek to conceptualise and embolden an approach to marine biodiscovery that is inclusive and equitable. Biodiscovery is defined as the systematic search for and development of new sources of chemical compounds, genes, micro-organisms, macro-organisms, and other valuable products from nature. Marine organisms are of great interest to researchers working on biodiscovery as they often have highly developed defence systems to survive in hostile conditions such as extreme temperatures, varied pressures and lack of sunlight.
Rapid technological advances are the name of the game in biotechnology and recent decades have seen a fundamental shift in the nature of biodiscovery from collecting physical samples of marine organisms for natural products to using marine microbial genomics to provide biosynthetic pathways for the production of products. Emerging genomics technologies include direct sequencing of eDNA, next generation sequencing technologies, metaproteomic and synthetic biology, heterologous expression and bioinformatics. These tools improve the discovery and production of compounds and enable the study of biosynthetic pathways of organisms previously inaccessible by traditional methods. The expected result is the synthesis of proteins, manufacture of molecular processes, and modification or even perhaps creation of organisms.
On the one hand this can lead to innovations incredibly useful to society including new antibiotics for resistant pathogens and biological drugs for targeted cancer treatment. On the other hand, much like the terrestrial landscape, there exists a stark divide in technological capacity between biologically diverse countries predominantly in the Global South and industrialised countries in the Global North, raising questions around who benefits from such innovations. This is especially the case in the marine context due to the high cost of deep-sea research. At the same time, given the nature of biotechnology as ‘scientific’ little emphasis has been given to the role of Indigenous peoples and local communities as custodians of marine spaces and their knowledge in understanding marine ecosystems. This is research that underpins Jen Whittingham’s PhD.
As a first step to conceptualising equitable research and innovation we seek to understand the multidimensionality of marine biodiscovery by drawing on the perspectives of scientists, social scientists, legal experts, industry, government, and local communities. Initially starting with South Africa and Namibia as case studies, in time we hope to expand the research to other One Ocean Hub partner countries. Our initial discussions with scientists have been fascinating and illuminating in understanding the complexity of the marine pharmaceutical pipeline. For example, metabolites from the South African hemichordate worm Cephalodiscus gilchristi first discovered in the 1970s have still not been successfully synthesised despite showing initial promise for anti-cancer activity by the US National Cancer Institute. While early studies focused on such marine invertebrates there has been a shift as the natural products community realised that more and more bioactive natural products were being biosynthesised by marine bacteria living in marine invertebrates and not by the marine invertebrates themselves.
The pipeline starts with the collecting of physical samples of marine invertebrates to isolate their bacteria and once isolated, compounds are mined for bioactivity. Once a bioactive compound is identified the next step is to grow sufficient samples for chemical analysis, for example cytotoxic activity against cancer cells. Recreating the conditions in a laboratory for these bacteria to thrive is a key challenge and here microbial genomics come into play as DNA is sequenced to study the genes with the goal of determining a biosynthetic pathway that bypasses the need to grow the bacteria. While most research in South Africa has focused on marine invertebrates and their associated bacteria there is also growing interest in the bacteria found in marine sediments. All scientists agree that South Africa’s biodiversity (our coastal marine species constitute 15% of those known worldwide) holds great potential for marine biodiscovery and conservation efforts should focus on holistic protection of these marine environments.
Besides the scientific complexities of marine biodiscovery are those related to the governance of marine resources. This not only involves ways in which access to marine genetic resources is managed, but also includes the management of research, scientific data and intellectual property at both national and international levels. Access to genetic resources is typically negotiated bilaterally at a national level, in accordance with the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity and its 2010 Nagoya Protocol but the marine environment presents a complex array of different jurisdictions. Moreover, the advent of genomics has created a grey and contested space of regulation as data can be shared within international research partnerships without having to physically export samples which can be time-consuming and challenging. In South Africa, such partnerships are crucial where research capacity is strong but funding and technological restraints exist in upscaling production.
Legal experts have highlighted the challenges of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) including the delimitation of maritime boundaries and the continental shelf which create political boundaries but which organisms freely move across. Not dissimilar to the challenges of regulating access and benefit sharing of terrestrial species across borders, those involved in biodiscovery can bypass countries with more stringent laws by accessing neighbouring waters.
Following these initial insights we look forward to continuing the research and deepening our understanding of the opportunities and challenges of marine biodiscovery. Ultimately, our hope is to bring together scientists, social scientists, legal experts, industry, government and coastal communities to co-create a model for inclusive and equitable governance of marine biodiscovery.