NEWS RELEASE, 11/10/98

UC Berkeley, Univ. of Hawai'i launch Marine Bioproducts Center with $12.4 million in NSF funding

By Greg Butera, College of Chemistry

BERKELEY -- Faculty members in the Department of Chemical Engineering at UC Berkeley, in a core partnership with the University of Hawai'i, have been awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for a Marine Bioproducts Engineering Center (MarBEC).

Announced on Nov. 2, the Center will receive $12.4 million over the next five years and will be headquartered at the University of Hawai'i, Manoa. Multidisciplinary research at the center will be dedicated to developing marine bioproducts for the chemical, pharmaceutical, nutraceutical and life sciences industries. The Berkeley-Hawai'i team was selected from 160 initial proposals.

In 1985 the NSF initiated funding for multidisciplinary centers focusing on newer areas of engineering. MarBEC is the second to deal with biotechnology, and the first emphasizing marine biotechnology and developing high value-added material from microorganisms.

The center will draw on the University of Hawai'i's years of experience collecting and analyzing marine products and organisms, and UC Berkeley's expertise in developing technology for bioengineering.

"We are in the international Year of the Ocean, and the time has come for a national effort that will bring benefits to Hawai'i, California, and the rest of the nation," said Oskar R. Zaborsky, center director and the HECO Williamson-Matsunaga Fellow in Renewable Energy Engineering Research at UH Manoa.

Center Associate Director Harvey Blanch, chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering at UC Berkeley, said this is truly 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.

Initial targets 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.

UC 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.

UC Berkeley reasearchers will separate, purify and formulate marine bioproducts. Blanch continues: "Our aim is to modify these new compounds with enzymes in the lab, to develop engineering and technology to exploit these microorganisms and the products they make."

The education component of the center will involve graduate students working on collaborative projects. MarBEC will involve students from chemical engineering, ocean engineering and marine microbiology.

"The program will train engineering students in marine biotechnology, and develop programs in engineering with a marine systems emphasis," Blanch said. An outreach component is also planned, working with Hawai'i museums, community colleges and Bay Area high schools.

"Opportunities exist for undergraduate research as well, said Blanch.

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

This represents a major collaboration among government, university and industrial sectors. Other partners in addition to UH and UC Berkeley include three national laboratories (Argonne National Laboratory, Edgewood Research Development and Engineering Center and Eastern Regional Research Center), the Bishop Museum, State of Hawai'i Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, and industrial firms.

Participating industrial firms include Aquasearch Inc, Aquatic Farms, Cyanotech Corporation, Eastman Chemical Company, Genencor International, Hawai'ian Electric Company, Honolulu Venture Capital, Inc., Monsanto Company and Precision Systems Science Company.

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