Synthetic Biology in Marine Conservation
There is a broad international consensus on the conservation of ecosystems, and within this large box, marine ecosystems are the ones that are of most concern. The oceans are an enormous source of wealth for life on our planet, although there are those who do not fully understand why. The question is not complicated if some basic fundamentals in ecological dynamics are explained.
Why Marine Conservation is important?
The ocean acts as a buffering agent for excess CO2 in the atmosphere (up to 30% of annual emissions) and energy (up to 80% of excess temperature in the atmosphere). This means that it dissolves CO2 from the atmosphere by adding H2O to form carbonic acid, which is also in equilibrium with the formation of bicarbonate and this with the carbonate anion and two protons, which end up acidifying the ocean – in case the CO2 impute is higher than usual. The current acidification rate is about 100 times higher than usual without anthropogenic action. This increase in acidity and temperature has already destroyed entire ecosystems, such as the destruction of much of the Great Barrier Reef or the Mediterranean kelp forest, a red algae that supports thousands of species. This is not to mention the action of microplastics or the so-called “seventh continent”, an island of garbage located in the North Pacific Ocean Gyre.
From this, two fundamental things can be deduced: a huge loss of ocean biodiversity leads to unpredictable changes in the biosphere and its accessibility to oxygen, and a serious alteration in the food chain, from microplankton consuming plastic, through filter-feeding organisms such as jellyfish and polyps, to humans. In short, a health and economy that will be impoverished to an extent that is currently incomprehensible.
In this context of uncertainty and, to some extent, fear, some marine scientists have noticed some very interesting adaptations in microbial ecosystems around the world. It turns out that the usual plastic, such as PET, is quite suitable for the proliferation of microbial life, as its hydrophobic character helps to establish biofilms. These microbiomes attract other individuals, including macroscopic animals such as mollusks or insects. The definition of plastisphere is, therefore, those ecosystems that have evolved towards the colonization of this new environment, reproducing and maintaining themselves there.
Of course, this is a blatant alteration of the biosphere, which has negative connotations. It is believed that metabolic pathways could be created that end up generating waste that is more difficult to degrade than plastic itself, and which is much more polluting (biologically active). On the other hand, and as it usually happens with all new things, there are those who point out how advantageous an interaction with these petroleum-derived skeletons, so rich in energy and carbon-hydrogen bonds, could be.
This colonization of plastic began, according to Dr. Linda Amaral-Zettler of the Marine Biological Laboratory, Dr. Tracy Mincer of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Dr. Erik Zettler of the Marine Education Association, with crack formers. It is not unreasonable to think that, somewhere in the vast world, a plastic degradation mechanism has evolved in these types of ecosystems. In fact, it has. We are talking about Ideonella sakaiensis, the plastic-eating bacterium. It is capable of breaking down polyethylene terephthalate (PET) into its components terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol. With only 6 weeks at 30°C, it has been able to demonstrate its almost complete efficacy in digesting plastic. This bacterium was discovered in 2016, but that does not mean it is the only one. In fact, there are most likely hundreds of even more effective species. There are also some fungi with “PETase” activity.
Bioengineering as preservation
It is not difficult to imagine how the sequence of enzymes needed in complastic bacteria could be integrated into ocean microbial communities. However, these GMOs could be dangerous to the environment, as they would outcompete local microbiota for resources, resulting in unprecedented ecological displacement. This is, therefore, a multidisciplinary task of preservation, and not so much a biotechnological boast of a particular laboratory that would put on a medal. It is one of the most serious and, therefore, scientifically rigorous issues that humans have ever had to face. Systems biology and artificial intelligence will play a key role in generating an artificial community of microorganisms capable of degrading plastic without displacing local species, for example.
On the other hand, photosynthetic communities can be monitored using in situ metagenomic tools, which could help us to understand or improve CO2 fixation and oxygen production in our oceans. The possibilities, once again, are almost endless.
Current State & Start ups
Research in this field is highly interdisciplinary. We have Ashored Innovations, with its software and hardware to increase fishing efficiency without abusing marine ecosystems. It also has a tracking system. 12 Tides is going in the direction of creating “Kelp farms” for snack consumption, which provides an artificial ecosystem for marine life, avoiding the desertification of the ocean floor. It is the turn of the so-called “Blue Biotech” to step up to the plate and offer great solutions to this urgent situation.
While venturing to say that the future is promising is somewhat hasty, since the situation is complex and probably very difficult to control; we can be sure that biotechnology has the potential to build a harmonious world between marine ecosystems and the development of humans as a technological civilization. It remains to be seen whether we humans will make good use of this scientific tool, or whether it will be another chapter to forget