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Harvesting the Seas

$12.4 Million NSF Grant Will Establish Marine Bioproducts Center in Hawaii

by Greg Butera, College of Chemistry
posted December 09, 1998

The Berkeley campus and the University of Hawaii, Manoa, have formed a partnership to set up a Marine Bioproducts Engineering Center in Hawaii with the aid of a $12.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

The center, called MarBEC, was one of five new engineering research centers established last month by NSF. Each will receive funds from NSF for five years, leveraged by support from industry, state governments and partnering universities.

Of the 34 engineering research centers that NSF has established nationwide since 1985, this is only the second to deal with biotechnology, and the first emphasizing marine biotechnology and developing high value-added material from microorganisms.

MarBEC, to be headquartered in Manoa at the University of Hawaii, will draw on UH-Manoa's years of experience collecting and analyzing marine products and organisms, and Berkeley's expertise in developing technology for bioengineering. Multidisciplinary research at the center will be dedicated to developing marine bioproducts for the chemical, pharmaceutical, nutraceutical and life sciences industries.

Center Associate Director Harvey Blanch, chair of Berkeley's Department of Chemical Engineering, said the agreement represented a new direction for chemical engineering.

"Marine organisms are not much used by industry for chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing," said Blanch. He noted that many unique properties in the marine environment, which are not found in terrestrial organisms, represent an untapped biological resource.

The Berkeley component of the five-year grant is $1 million to $1.5 million per year, which will fund 10 to 12 graduate students and postdocs. Faculty members involved include chemical engineering professors Blanch, Douglas Clark, Clayton Radke and Jay Keasling, plus Professor Norman Pace from the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology.

Initial targets of research will be carotenoid pigments used as coloring agents in a variety of products, polyunsaturated fatty acids, enzymes and nucleosides (bioactive agents useful as pharmaceuticals), and new products from organisms found in extreme environments, such as deep sea vents.

Berkeley's role in the center is focused on developing production technology and using genetic and metabolic engineering, and combinatorial biocatalysis, said Blanch.

"It will be a real challenge to grow marine organisms on a large scale. Many are microalgae, which require sunlight for growth. This presents a new challenge in an engineering laboratory that hasn't really been dealt with before," Blanch said.

Campus reasearchers will separate, purify and formulate marine bioproducts.

MarBEC's educational component will involve graduate students from chemical engineering, ocean engineering and marine microbiology working on collaborative projects. An outreach component, working with Hawaii museums, community colleges and Bay Area high schools, is also planned, according to Blanch, and opportunities exist for undergraduate research as well.


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