Dr. Beata Czechowska-Derkacz talks to prof. dr hab. Hanna Mazur-Marzec, head of the Department of Marine Biotechnology at the Faculty of Oceanography and Geography, University of Gdańsk, about blue, green, white and red biotechnology and the resources of the Baltic Sea
What is the condition of our Baltic Sea? Scientists are warning that it is under-oxygenated and polluted. I am asking in the context of the year 2020, which was announced by the UN as the year of the seas and oceans. It was supposed to be the cut-off date for the so-called domino effect, the changes that we would no longer be able to stop.
I am an optimist, but also a realist, and I think that the situation is not that disastrous. The environment, as long as we do not cross a certain barrier, can return to a state of equilibrium, and it seems to me that, in the case of the Baltic, this limit has not yet been crossed. There are many problems with the Baltic, and its condition is far from optimal or sustainable. Since the 1980s, however, some mechanisms have been put in place to improve the condition of the Baltic Sea, and I think that not only in my research but also in the research of colleagues, we are seeing tentative signs of improvement. We have been damaging the environment for many decades. We cannot expect this situation to change suddenly. Scientists reckon that satisfactory results can be expected around 2050, provided, however, that we continue to act effectively to improve the ecological state of the Baltic.
Prof. dr hab. Hanna Mazur-Marzec. Photo: Arek Smykowski / UG
What are the most serious effects of man's destructive influence on the Baltic?
There are three most serious effects of anthropopression. These are eutrophication, pollution with organic substances and heavy metals, and litter, of which microplastics are a new category. Eutrophication, however, comes first. The amount of pollutants entering the Baltic Sea that cause eutrophication, namely biogenic substances such as nitrogen and phosphorus compounds, has decreased since the 1980s. However, we have deposited so much of these substances in the environment that a so-called vicious eutrophication cycle is emerging. This means that these elements circulate in the sea and from time to time change from the form associated with organisms or deposited in the sediment to the dissolved form, which provides a basis for the development of microorganisms. This results in an internal supply of nutrients to the environment, an excess of which causes intense algal and cyanobacterial blooms. Many years of human effort are needed to improve the environment and stop this vicious cycle of eutrophication.
What kind of measures should be taken to prevent such phenomena?
Above all, we should pay great attention to new technologies which will limit the generation and discharge of pollutants into the Baltic Sea. It is well known that not all pollutants that reach the sewage treatment plants are actually broken down, and some of them, unfortunately, return to the environment. It seems to me that when it comes to point sources of pollution, systematic improvement is taking place. However, it is most difficult to control diffuse sources, as pollution knows no borders and can be transported over long distances. The most serious threat as regards chemical pollution is posed by persistent compounds, which can persist for many years in the ecosystem and can be carried by organisms at successive levels of the food chain, eventually returning to humans.
The Baltic is a sea of low biodiversity, what are the causes and consequences of this?
Biodiversity can be looked at in two ways. I deal with microorganisms, and I have to say that at this level we know only a small percentage of the species that exist in the Baltic Sea. But when it comes to higher organisms, it is a sea with limited biodiversity. First of all, because organisms do not adapt easily to it. On the one hand, not all organisms originating from freshwater can survive in the brackish waters of the Baltic Sea. On the other hand, some organisms that originate from typically marine environments do not always adapt easily to water with intermediate salinity. In terms of consequences, it must be remembered that the loss of a single species can cause major changes in an ecosystem with little biodiversity. If a species becomes endangered and its population is reduced or disappears altogether, there are few native organisms to replace its functions. There is also a danger that the resulting gap will be filled by organisms alien to the ecosystem.
We most often see the resources of the Baltic Sea as a source of fish or macroalgae. You, Professor, are studying cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae.
First of all, these are not algae but bacteria, which is why I persist in using the name cyanobacteria. It is a specific and interesting group of microorganisms and their function in the environment is very important. Cyanobacteria are among the pioneering organisms that inhabited the Earth about two and a half billion years ago. The great merit of these organisms is that we breathe oxygen today - the emergence of cyanobacteria resulted in the evolution of life on Earth, as they enabled the development of aerobic life forms. Even today, much of the oxygen on Earth comes from the processes that take place in these organisms. Our research team is particularly interested in cyanometabolites, compounds that these organisms produce and that have probably allowed them to survive the sometimes drastic conditions that prevailed on Earth.
Cyanobacteria are commonly associated negatively, as harmful and even dangerous organisms for humans. You, Professor, are exploring their positive aspects.
Many toxins have positive uses. Probably the best-known example is botulinum, which is making a huge career in cosmetic medicine (as botox), and is one of the most virulent toxins we can imagine. My research on cyanometabolites started with toxic compounds and then, by equipping my laboratory with modern apparatus, I was able to find out that cyanobacteria produce a whole range of previously unknown compounds. They turned out to be very interesting in terms of biological activity. We try to study this activity as comprehensively as possible, also in terms of anticancer or antiviral activity. We cooperate with many units that support us, because the more such tests we conduct, the easier it will be to identify the most interesting organism, producing the most promising compounds.
I would also like to ask about the current problem - a large blue-green algae bloom in the Baltic Sea this year - what is the reason for this?
There is no clear answer to this question. We cannot attribute everything solely to factors such as eutrophication. There are several biotic factors, not yet fully understood, which influence the dynamics of the bloom. In our area of the Baltic Sea, blooms are most often observed during hot summers, but to a large extent, their appearance on our beaches is due to wind direction. When observing the maximum density of cyanobacterial surface blooms on a satellite map of the Baltic Sea, it is clear that they are most abundant in the central part of the Baltic Sea. If these clusters are near the surface (and this is the tendency of these organisms that they float to the surface) and if the wind is blowing in our direction, even without conditions favourable for their development, blue-green algae can appear here. We often see green streaks on the horizon, which can be the result of wind and wave action driving these aggregations towards us.
The ecosystem potential of the Baltic Sea is still not fully explored. What other compounds extracted from the Baltic might be useful?
The marine environment, even poor in various organisms, like the Baltic Sea, has a lot to offer. The collagen of marine organisms, for example, is used on a large scale. It is used in various fields, from medicine to the food industry. As a dietary supplement, it strengthens bones and can also be used to produce dressing materials or cosmetics. Collagen derivatives include gelatine and compounds used in the pharmaceutical industry. Collagen is extracted from the parts of fish that are not consumed by humans: skin, heads and bones, among others. For fish fillet manufacturers, this fact makes it possible to reduce and make efficient use of the generated waste. Other valuable products obtained from fish are omega-3 fatty acids, which are actually treated as medicines, especially in cardiovascular diseases. Macroalgae are widely used in the production of cosmetics, as well as in the food industry (for example, agar, carrageenan). Our team, on the other hand, is trying to explore new possibilities for the use of Baltic cyanobacteria, especially their potential as a source of compounds with pharmaceutical applications.
Drugs (antibacterial, antibiotic, anticancer), production of cosmetics, new technologies accelerating waste utilization - can we say that we are entering the area of blue biotechnology?
Yes, you can and it is not a big novelty. We started to develop in this direction at a faster pace already a dozen or so years ago. At that time, the University of Gdańsk took part in the international MAREX project. Thanks to the participation of many different research groups from different countries, it was possible to conduct a large-scale search for organisms with the most interesting biotechnological potential and then to study the compounds they produced. Many European Commission programmes are now turning to blue biotechnology. We know how many medicines have been developed from natural products, and it is believed that this amounts to around sixty pct. of all medicines on the market. The marine environment probably has the most to offer in this respect. Firstly, it is the least exploited. Secondly, it is superior to terrestrial organisms in terms of the biodiversity of organisms, and therefore also in terms of metabolic diversity. For example, drugs developed from compounds produced by terrestrial organisms are no longer effective against pathogenetic and multi-antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In contrast, the metabolites of marine organisms are distinctly different and unique in their structure and activity. There is therefore a chance that precisely thanks to these compounds obtained from the marine environment, we will be able to develop new, effective drugs. Of course, marine biotechnology is not only about medicines. It is a very broad area. It is said that blue biotechnology combines branches of biotechnology marked with other colours - green, red or white because marine organisms and their metabolites have or may have applications in agriculture (for example, as herbicides, growth promoters), medicine (for example, drugs, biomaterials) or industry (for example, enzyme catalysts).
Is the Polish economy ready to make use of marine resources in the field of blue biotechnology?
I think that blue biotechnology using marine resources or using natural products of marine organisms as a starting point to obtain products with high added value is not popular enough in Poland. There are, of course, biotechnology companies both in our Pomeranian and Polish markets that appreciate the marine potential. However, it is difficult for scientists to establish contact with business partners. Our research team is working on new cyanobacterial metabolites with potential pharmacological applications, but commercialisation of these products may be difficult. You also have to consider what kind of business a biotech company can do in our conditions. For example, it is not very profitable to grow microalgae to obtain biologically active compounds. In this respect, Spanish or Chinese companies, where the climate is conducive to large-scale cultures, will certainly be more competitive. In the Baltic Sea area, however, there are companies producing cosmetics from macroalgae. In Poland, the reed is harvested from the Vistula Lagoon - an exportable building material. The same reed also has several health-promoting properties and can be used to produce higher value-added products. The development of marine biotechnology and professional activity in this area has been rather slow. In my opinion, this is largely due to a lack of knowledge about the existing opportunities.
Medicines are a particularly media-savvy topic and at the same time difficult for researchers. Millions and sometimes billions of euros are needed for implementation. Can we even compete with the world's giants in such research?
Those who do not strive for the impossible never achieve it. Even if we don't achieve everything right from the start, we try to open certain doors or direct the research team so that such activity can be conducted on an international scale. This type of research requires large interdisciplinary teams and a lot of money. Thanks to grants and broad cooperation, we manage to obtain these funds. We cooperate both with teams from the University of Gdańsk, e.g. from the departments of Chemistry or Biology and with other Polish universities, e.g. the Małopolska Biotechnology Centre at the Jagiellonian University or the Department of Biotechnology in Environmental Protection at the University of Warmia and Mazury. We also have widely developed international cooperation. I believe that the University of Gdańsk has excellent and very well-prepared staff for this type of research. In Poland, our University was a forerunner in marine biotechnology research in the context of work on new medicines based on substances produced by marine organisms. I hope that we will continue to be a leader in this field. I am convinced that this is possible, but on the condition that there is further extensive inter-university and inter-departmental cooperation.
The climate catastrophe, the polluted Baltic Sea, all this worries us. But when I go for a walk by the sea, and I'm there often because I live nearby, I find it simply beautiful and it is an invaluable asset to me, wherever I am, I always miss this view...
The sea provides many different, good, positive impressions. I have a very personal relationship with the sea. A few years ago, at a meeting to celebrate the thirty-fifth anniversary of 'Oceania', a ship of the Polish Academy of Sciences, there was Mr Zygmunt Choreń, a world-famous designer of sailing ships. It was on his sailing ships - on the 'Oceania', where I met my husband, on the 'Dar Młodzieży', where my husband was a commander, or on the beautiful Royal Clipper, the biggest megayacht in the world - that I spent the most beautiful days of my life. Not because of the luxury or the excellent cuisine, but because of the extraordinary experience of watching the sea from the deck of these ships. When I told Mr Choreni about it, he replied briefly: 'That is why I built these ships.'.