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Marine bio prospecting – Norway’s untapped treasure

The Norwegian government has launched a new national initiative on marine bio prospecting to stimulate development of the northern hinterlands of Norway around Tromsø. The country’s unique Arctic environment, combined with its long tradition of harvesting the sea, make it...

Norway made one of its most famous contributions to bio prospecting from land. Cyclosporine, a drug used to prevent graft rejection in organ transplants, was discovered from a fungus of Hardangervidda in 1969.

But the greater promise lies probably offshore. Norwegian waters hold more than 10,000 species and a varied spectrum of sub-sea ecosystems, making it one of Norway’s most untapped natural resources.

Record cross troll eating. © Erling Svendsen/MABIT

Unique Arctic Environment

The country’s unique Arctic environment in particular will be increasingly important, according to Helga Pedersen, Norway’s minister of fisheries and coastal affairs. The combination of extreme temperatures and special light conditions had led to the evolution of organisms with unique properties and potentially valuable bioactive compounds.

“The marine environment has received much less attention than its terrestrial counterpart in the search for natural compounds,” said Pedersen in her address at the Fourth International Conference on Marine Bio Prospecting, BIOPROSP 2009, in Tromsø this February.

“This is surprising considering that marine evolution has a 2.7 billion year head start over terrestrial environments,” she added. “In fact, the natural products isolated from marine sources tend to be more highly bioactive than terrestrial counterparts.”

Marine bio prospecting is the search for bioactive compounds in marine organisms including invertebrates, algae, plankton, and bacteria. This could be anything from a fungus as big as a football, or a small crustacean, such as Calanus, only a few millimetres long.

Researchers have been bio prospecting on land for 70-80 years, while marine bio prospecting for the last 30-40 years in countries such as Germany, France, India, Japan, Canada, New Zealand and the US, according to Trond Ø. Jørgensen, professor in immunology and biotechnology at the University of Tromsø. Marine bio prospecting in Norway is even relatively newer.

One of the first in the field was Biotec Pharmacon, which started up 20 years ago, initially as a Norwegian biotechnology company based on innovative biochemistry research and new inventions on how to use certain marine cold-adapted enzymes as processing aids. The founders discovered in 1987 that disease resistance of Atlantic salmon was significantly enhanced by a special beta-1,3/1,6-glucan preparation designated MacroGard®.

Biotec Pharmacon has since sold the animal health branch of the company, which included MacroGard, to focus on pharmaceuticals and life science products. Its current emphasis within bio prospecting is to manufacture high purity natural or recombinant enzymes for the life science sector. The company is also spearheading research on products that may prevent or treat diseases caused by failure, imbalance and over-reaction of the immune system in humans and animals.

Divers on the ice. 
© Hinrich Basemann/MABI

Tromsø at the heart of R&D activity

Tromsø has come to be the centre for marine bio prospecting research and activities in Norway. Tromsø Science Park is home for many such companies and there are plans to extend the park next year to house about 100 scientists and a state-of-the-art biotechnology infrastructure called Barents Bio Centre. There are approximately 25 enterprises within marine biotechnology in Northern Norway, mostly Tromsø, with 500 employees, half of which are academics, according to Jørgensen, director of the MabCent programme.

MabCent started up in March 2007 as a centre for research-based innovation based on an eight-year initiative established by the Research Council of Norway and hosted by the University of Tromsø. It has three commercial partners, Biotec Pharmacon, Lytix Biopharma, and Pronova BioPharma, and works together with four platforms: Marbank, Marbio, The Norwegian Structural Biology Centre (NorStruct) and SmallStruct.

Marbank is a national marine bio bank that provides an accessible national repository of frozen/extracted marine biological samples, such as genetic and biological material from marine organisms, plankton, algae, invertebrates and vertebrates, all collected and maintained under controlled conditions.

Marbio screens and analyzes the bioactive compounds and identifies novel bioactivities within anti-bacterial, anti-cancer, immunostimulants, anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic, antioxidants and enzymes and inhibitors.

The two other platforms, NorStruct and SmallStruct, work with molecular characterisation and isolated bioactive compounds for structure determination. NorStruct, a national research and service centre within the national initiative in functional genomics (FUGE), works with protein modules, while SmallStruct works with smaller organic molecules.


MABIT, an industrial R&D programme for Northern Norway also based in Tromsø, has been focusing on marine biotechnology for fisheries, aquaculture and bio prospecting industry for 11 years. There are four major research activities in MABIT: use of by-products from fisheries; marine bio prospecting; products for aquaculture and fish health; and competence and networking. The programme supports research and development within companies and other institutions and networking. It typically gets involved in the early phases of a project with the hope of commercialising the product.

Unn Sørum, MABIT co-ordinator, believes that products other than drugs will be more accessible for commercialisation in the short term. The Tromsø-based company Contra, for example, has been working with enzymes to break down the membrane covering the gonads in fish for more effective caviar production. Norwegian company Calanus produces a dietary supplement, called Ruby Oil, based on the marine copepod Calanus finmarchicus, which is prized for its high content of marine fatty acids EPA and DHA.

In the long term, however, the big money will be in drugs. MABIT recently concluded the early stage of an HIV research programme that found components in an invertebrate that inhibit the growth of the HIV virus. Another hope is in the field of cancer therapy. Lytix BioPharma develops novel drugs for the treatment of resistant bacterial and fungal infections, as well as first-in-class oncology treatments.

“Fisheries was the first phase…then came aquaculture,” said Sørum. “The third field within marine resources is biotechnology with the expectation that this will grow bigger than the first two.”