Marine Biotechnology Center

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UCSB is recognized internationally for its leadership in Marine Biotechnology.  This exciting field uses the latest breakthroughs in modern molecular biology, genetic engineering and cell science to solve basic problems in marine resource biology; to improve the production of medical, chemical, food, and energy resources from the ocean; and to develop new products and industries based on more efficient use of the ocean's resources. 

The Marine Biotechnology Center is unique in the University of California system.  It helps coordinate fifteen different research programs in this area at UCSB, and helps obtain funding for the vitally needed practical training of advanced students and professionals to help meet the future needs and changing requirements of the nation's marine and biotechnology industries.  Close interactions with California's biotechnology, aquaculture and pharmaceutical industries provide new products and highly trained scientific personnel to the industrial sector, and provide support from industry for research and training in the University.  The state-of-the-art Marine Biotechnology Laboratory Building - the first such facility of its kind in the United States - provides facilities needed to accommodate the rapid growth of research and teaching in Marine Biotechnology on the campus.

Research and training in Marine Biotechnology are focused at UCSB in three inter-related areas:  (1) the development of new methods and approaches from molecular and cellular biology to investigate the basic mechanisms controlling life in the oceans and its responses to environmental change;  (2) the development of new industries, resources and products from the oceans; and (3) the use of marine organisms as models for biomedical research.  Recent progress in these areas is summarized below.

UCSB scientists are using the tools of biotechnology to unravel the ocean's mysteries in environments as diverse as the Antarctic, tropical seas and reefs, the great ocean depths, and California's resource-rich coastline. These investigations include pioneering studies of the molecular mechanisms of photosynthesis and carbon dioxide fixation by the ocean's phytoplankton, effects on these processes caused by the depletion of ozone in the Antarctic atmosphere, and effects of global warming, pollution and other environmental changes.  UCSB scientists and students have discovered receptor molecules and chemical signals that control life in the ocean.  The discovery of these signals, and of the receptors, transducing molecules and genes that respond to these signals, has shed new light on the underlying processes regulating the reproduction, development and growth of species ranging from tropical corals to valuable marine resources (urchins and abalones) in California waters and around the world.

Researchers in the Marine Biotechnology Center are developing the tools and techniques of molecular and cellular biology to better understand the biodiversity of marine organisms, and how they affect, and are affected by, physical, chemical and geochemical oceanic processes.  Marine biota, particularly the microscopic plankton, are dominant mediators of geochemical change on Earth, yet the genetic diversity, abundance and function of these microorganisms in complex communities is still not completely understood.  Researchers at the Marine Biotechnology Center are developing new ways to monitor these microscopic communities, and are discovering previously unsuspected diversity and population structure in globally distributed marine microbial populations.

One of the main goals of microbial oceanographers is to better understand microbial interactions with larger biogeochemical processes in the ocean.  Traditionally, free-living oceanic bacterioplankton have been treated as a “black box” (i.e. all types of heterotrophic bacteria act the same way); however, this approach grossly oversimplifies microbial diversity and their associated processes.  Professor Craig Carlson and his students and colleagues have been actively breaking this black box apart to better understand how specific lineages of bacterioplankton respond to varying biogeochemical patterns in the sea.  In their microbial observatory project, focused in the northwestern Sargasso Sea, they have been resolving time-varying trends of members of a major clade of heterotrophic bacterioplankton called SAR11.  Recent advances in fluorescent in situ hybridization (FISH) coupled with terminal restriction fragment length polymorphism (T-RFLP) have allowed them to resolve the lineage specific dynamics of SAR11. These findings indicate that at least three of the subclades that comprise SAR11 have specific physiological adaptations that govern the dynamic transitions in time and over depth, indicating that these three SAR11 subclades represent separate SAR11 ecotypes.

Figure above.
Contour plots of SAR11 ecotype cell densities in the surface 300 m in the northwestern Sargasso Sea from 2003 through 2005 for SAR11 ecotype Ia (a), Ib (b) and II (c).  The data reported in this figure were modeled from the quantitative FISH data in combination with relative contribution data from T-RFLP patterns.  White dashed line represents the dynamics of the mixed layer depth and is used to display the distribution patterns in the context of water column mixing and stratification.

These studies are helping to reveal the influence of microorganisms on global biological and geochemical cycles, and are also providing the tools and baseline data necessary for realistically assessing the impacts of man-made and naturally occurring  environmental change.  In addition, the recognition of previously unrecognized marine biodiversity is providing a rich resource for new development of biotechnological products and processes.

Extending such efforts to macroscopic ocean flora and fauna, researchers at UCSB are involved in an international effort to annotate the genome of the California purple sea urchin, an organism that serves as an excellent biomedical model system as well as being an integral component of the marine benthic community. These sea urchin genome consortium members at UCSB are helping to develop bioinformatic and functional genomic technologies that can be applied to genomic analyses of other marine organisms as well.

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