Marine Biotechnology Center

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Research at UCSB in the development of new products and industries from marine resources has led to the discovery of promising new diagnostic and therapeutic agents for diseases including cancer, arthritis, epilepsy and Alzheimer's disease, and the development of powerful new enzyme catalysts, novel bioadhesives, and marine microorganisms capable of degrading and detoxifying chlorinated hydrocarbons and other pollutants.  Members of the Marine Biotechnology Center are working with researchers in Chemistry, Physics and Engineering through UCSB's new Army-supported Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies, and through the NSF-sponsored National Materials Research Laboratory, the California NanoSystems Institute, NIH’s Bioengineering Consortium Program, and NASA's Biomolecular Materials program to develop valuable new materials based on the structures made by marine organisms which exhibit exceptional strength, resiliency, hardness and enhanced electrical and optical performance.  With the help of the marine biotechnologists' skills in genetic and protein analysis and engineering, and close collaborations with colleagues in Chemistry, Physics and Engineering, the fundamental molecular structures and mechanisms underlying the enhanced performance of these natural materials made by marine organisms are being revealed, and translated into practical engineering solutions for the development of novel advanced materials. Teams are working with experts in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering to harness the mechanisms of low-temperature catalysis and molecular recognition of proteins that direct biomineralization in marine organisms to help direct the nanoscale fabrication of ultra-small crystals used for magnetic information storage and semiconductors, to help reduce the size and defect-density of electronic components, and to make new photovoltaic materials with improved efficiency to harness the sun’s energy. A new generation of tough, water resistant adhesives and coatings has been inspired by sessile intertidal invertebrates, and the fangs and beaks of marine polychaetes and squids are the pointing the way to new lightweight polymeric materials with the hardness and wear resistance usually associated with ceramics. Research aimed at practical applications with economic value also has led to improvements in the economic efficiency and yield of cultivation of valuable marine fish, shellfish and plants grown for food and pharmaceuticals.  These findings have led directly to the growth of new and "environmentally friendly" industries in Santa Barbara that now are producing abalones, urchins and marine algae using innovations in aquaculture technology developed at UCSB. 

Research using marine organisms as model systems for biomedical research has led to a host of new and far-reaching discoveries at UCSB.  Many marine invertebrates, because of their relatively simple design, and the ease of their maintenance and analysis in the laboratory, have provided a rich source of new information and serve as desirable, non-mammalian models for research.  A major area of emphasis is in regard to the genetic control of normal development and of tumor formation. Professor Kathleen Foltz and her students make use of marine model systems to investigate fundamental questions of reproductive biology, cell cycle control, and early development. They discovered that the molecular recognition processes controlling oocyte maturation and fertilization are highly conserved across species; information gained from studying the eggs and embryos of many marine invertebrates (such as sea urchins, sea stars and sea squirts) can be applied to other animals, including mammals.  This research group has been actively involved in the Genome Sequencing Project for the California Purple Sea Urchin, Strongylocentrotus purpuratus. Their team is part of an international consortium that completed the first echinoderm genome sequence. The information gained from this genome project is being used to identify and understand the gene networks that regulate early development, and to investigate the evolutionary underpinnings of animal development.  The Foltz research team is using the genomic information to describe the egg “proteome” – the identification of all of the proteins present in the egg – and to study their regulation in the first few minutes of fertilization and during the egg to embryo transition. Using a functional proteomics approach, over 250 sea urchin egg proteins that undergo modifications at fertilization have been identified. Most of these proteins are conserved in mammals and thus may provide insight into fertility and contraception.

Caption: High-magnification electron
micrograph of sea urchin sperm
fertilizing an egg.

Professor William Smith and his students are pioneers in the study of chordate developmental biology using the ascidian ("sea squirt") as a model organism.  Ascidians are invertebrate members of the chordate phylum, and are the closest living relatives of the vertebrates. However, despite their kinship with the vertebrates, the ascidians have many features that are more like those found in invertebrate model organisms such as nematodes and insects, including a small genome, and a simple embryo that develops according to an invariant cell lineage. Professor Smith and his group have used two locally abundant species of ascidians to identify the genes that regulate fundamental process of embryogenesis.  To help them with this identification, they've isolated mutants that disrupt the development of various tissues including the nervous system and notochord (a tissue found all chordates that serves as a developmental “scaffold”).  These mutants have allowed them identify genes that code for proteins required for the normal development of the brain and other neuronal structures.  Within the past year they have mapped one such mutation to a novel gene that is essential for development of the forebrain.  This gene, a member of the DMRT family of transcription factors, is expressed from the earliest stages of central nervous system development.  A similar gene is found in mammalian genomes, although its function has not been addressed.  In a different area, the Smith lab has been collaborating with computer engineers at UCSB to develop advanced image analysis methods for capturing ascidian development in live embryos. The ascidian embryo because of its small size, cellular simplicity, and conserved morphogenesis with vertebrates, is ideal for capturing development in toto from a single living embryo (see figure). Our long-range goal is to fully characterize the range of cell-to-cell interactions, cellular migrations, and force-generating cellular shape-changes that convert the single-cell ascidian embryo into a swimming tadpole larva with 2000 cells.

Caption: Major tissues of the Ciona tailbud stage embryo, showing
the low cell number and simple tissue architecture (false
color added for clarity).

In addition, marine model systems have shed light on the mechanisms that nerve cells use to produce, store release and respond to chemical messengers and how the resulting regulation of these cells results in information processing, storage and memory.  Many of these discoveries have had direct implications for human and other mammalian research.  Professor J. Herbert Waite's laboratory studies the specialized teeth, fangs, beaks, spines, and claws of marine invertebrates that equip these animals for feeding, defense, and predation. Their studies in marine polychaetes, squids and snail egg capsules are providing insights into alternative strategies for making robust, tough, lightweight, and self-healing materials.

Caption: Close-up photograph of the jaws of a marine worm, discovered to owe their hardness and self-sharpening performance to unique metal constituents (left). Caption: Close-up photograph of a sandcastle worm building its tube home by cementing together sandgrains with Dopa containing proteins (right).

Another important area of research is water resistant adhesion. Water is the nemesis of practical adhesive bonding, yet the rocky intertidal seashore is home to a host of organisms that spend their lives attached to solid surfaces surrounded and assaulted by water and waves. Professor Waite and his students discovered that the amino acid known as Dopa is a key to the remarkable underwater adhesion in mussels and sandcastle worms. In related studies, discoveries first made at UCSB on the biological mechanisms controlling the nanofabrication and toughness of the abalone shell have now been extended by Professor Paul Hansma and his students to human bone, with profound implications for diseases such as osteoporosis and arthritis.

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