First European Sea Industry in Naples. Interview with Roberto Danovaro – Part 1
Seas and oceans are among the most unexplored areas known to man, and understanding the life forms populating them could promote important developments in several fields, from food industry to the fight against cancer.
With this in mind, the Anton Dohrn Zoological Station of Naples is setting up the first European Marine Biotechnology Department, funded with a contribution by the Ministry of Education, University and Research-MIUR. The facility will host researchers from all over the world, with the purpose of revealing the secrets of the sea to the benefit of companies.
Roberto Danovaro, President of the Anton Dohrn Zoological Station told us about the potential of this research area.
Professor Danovaro, besides promoting advances in basic knowledge, research in marine biology opens up unexpected scenarios for innovation and development. Why is sea research so important?
The sea provides the world’s largest source of proteins and its animal and plant organisms are an important and sustainable food source for a steadily growing population. The sea also sequesters carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and produces almost half of the oxygen that we breathe, thus doing an important service for our environment and quality of life. Finally, we must think that mankind has lived on Earth for hundred million years, while sea life started about 1.5 billion years before. In this period of time, sea organisms have diversified their functions making the marine environment a precious mine of molecules and materials still to be discovered, which can highly contribute to development and innovation in all fields.
Can you give an example of molecules or marine materials that can be useful to humans?
Today, about 7,000 molecules extracted from the sea are used or are being validated for several uses, from medicine to industry. I am thinking, for example, of molecules that can fight cell proliferation and therefore tumours, as is the case with an important anticancer compound that today is used in chemotherapy and is extracted from a sea sponge, or molecules used against pain that are devoid of side effects and are derived from the poison of particular sea snails. There are also substances with an important nutraceutical value, such as the well-known omega-3, which are mainly produced by organisms similar to microalgae, or substances useful in the cosmetic industry that are used to develop hydrating, protective and cellulite biological creams. But the sea also provides innovative ideas for the development of new materials that can be inspired by biological and micro-architectonic solutions adopted by marine organisms over millions of years.
With this purpose, the Anton Dohrn Zoological Station in Naples will soon host a new European Marine Biotechnology Department. What will be the impact of this research centre on Italy?
This will be the first European Marine Biotechnology Department and will help fill the cultural gap that places Italy 17th globally by number of marine patents, lagging behind countries that have far less coastal areas. The new centre, approved by the Ministry of Education, University and Research, will re-launch Italy as an international reference point in the field of eco-compatible and eco-sustainable marine biotechnological research, to investigate the secrets of the sea without altering natural processes, and to produce molecules and compounds with high added value for use in the industry and trade. The new centre will be set up in a facility still to be identified in Naples, a city that hosts the best national biology experts and which already hosts the new technology cluster “Blue Growth” dedicated to the economy of the sea; the project will also promote one of the Italian areas with the highest potential for “Blue Growth”.
In which way will the exchange of knowledge with the industrial sector occur?
First of all, the new research facility will host scientists from all over the world, and we have already started to recruit as many as 50 researchers internationally. This will help many Italian brains currently working abroad to come back to Italy. Moreover, we will create collaboration areas for researchers to work with small, medium and large companies, so that the output of research becomes more closely connected to the market. This is how we will create new opportunities for development and employment. The companies interested in this research area are many, ranging from the food industry to the pharmaceutical and materials manufacturing sectors.