Technological advances are helping with the discovery and development of many novel ingredients our marine ecosystems offer beyond seafood, to create new industries, employment and economic opportunities
By Catherine Norwood
Over the next 10 years, the Marine Bioproducts Cooperative Research Centre (MBCRC) plans to establish products and processes that will underpin whole new industries for Australia’s marine estate.
Farming ocean plants and animals will provide the basis for the initial ingredients. However, it is the potential of the unique biochemistry of Australian marine life, combined with advanced manufacturing technologies, that will drive the next generation of marine-based products.
The global marine biotechnology industry is rapidly expanding, with an estimated value of more than $176 billion by 2035. High-value products already include nutraceuticals, omega-3 oils, cosmetics, plant-based proteins, agrochemicals and bioplastics.
Partners in research
In June 2021, the Australian Government announced funding of $59 million over 10 years, officially launching the MBCRC. When this funding is combined with contributions from industry partners, the MBCRC is a $270 million initiative. It has about 70 partners who represent a broad cross-section of industry, including some of Australia’s major agribusinesses, small and medium enterprises and two global chemical industry giants, along with some of the country’s leading scientists and researchers.
The FRDC is among the latest organisations to sign on as a partner, bringing three seaweed-related research projects it has underway into the MBCRC program. Two projects are investigating the use of seaweeds in water treatment processes, with the third project investigating year-round seaweed propagation.
The move will consolidate and coordinate Australian seaweed-related research under the auspices of the MBCRC to make the best use of available resources and share knowledge. But FRDC Managing Director Patrick Hone is quick to point out the possibilities beyond algae and food. “It’s phenomenal what the products we already know about can do, and exciting to think how much more there is to discover,” he says.
Marine biochemicals, such as algae-based cellulose, can replace petrochemicals as the base ingredient in many products, particularly plastics, he says. There are uses in electronic systems, where biocells are being developed, and in renewable energy, where marine products could provide an alternative option to the balsa wood used for the blades on wind turbines.
Although seaweed is garnering substantial international attention, the MBCRC’s scope includes investigating bioactive ingredients from other marine plants including microalgae, as well as marine microbes and animals such as oysters.
The MBCRC has three research programs:
- Program 1: Sustainable marine resources, achieved through developing the cultivation skills, technologies and management practices to grow high-quality marine bioproducts sustainably and cost-effectively;
- Program 2: Innovative bioprocessing technologies designed specifically for the Australian marine bioproducts industry and critical for its growth; and
- Program 3: Australian marine bioproducts – selection, development, validation and delivery of a range of certified, evidence-based, high-value Australian marine bioproducts into global markets.
Based at the University of Tasmania, Catriona MacLeod is leading Program 1, which will include projects from the FRDC. The program aims to develop:
- a decision-support framework to optimise success by aligning product, location and production models;
- a breeding and hatchery program that will provide partners with access to species strains that are best suited to their physical and economic environment; and
- reliable, efficient and commercially viable production, harvesting and stabilisation systems built around validated cost-effective, state-of-the-art technologies and the necessary operational skills.
MacLeod says she particularly likes the way the MBCRC’s three programs are integrated, rather than competing with each other. Colin Barrow from Deakin University is leading Program 2 and Rob Capon at the University of Queensland is leading Program 3.
“Many of the participants have a vested interest in all three programs. If you are producing a biomass, you’re either producing it for a product, which requires processing, or you want to know what the product is. So, the programs are absolutely linked,” she says.
MacLeod says seaweed and macroalgae represent the greatest proportion of partners, but there are fish and oyster producers looking to add value to their existing production strategies or products. Several companies are also looking at end-product diversification.
Among these companies looking to diversify is Pia Winberg, director and chief scientist at PhycoHealth. The business grows a type of green seaweed for food and nutraceutical products. During her product development research, Winberg identified that the species she grows has potential in wound dressings with active biochemistry that promotes healing.
She says the MBCRC provides a great opportunity to start extending that research and development to the next stage, to bring in additional partners and expand the scope of the work. Surgical-grade products, such as a wound dressing, require a long trajectory of research and development before becoming commercially viable. This is one of the projects the MB-CRC will bring on board.
Winberg sees the MBCRC as an important opportunity to bring together researchers from different fields, with different skill sets, to work across the entire value chain.
Another partner is the Tasmanian business Marinova, which extracts fucoidan, a bioactive ingredient in brown seaweeds, for dietary supplements, cosmetics and human health products. Operations Manager Damien Stringer says the business is aligned with the MB-CRC’s Program 3, looking at bioproduct development and advancing the market of Australian marine biproducts.
“The MBCRC will provide a step change in the level of investment investigating the activity of these extracts, which differ from species to species. It will confirm their biological potential and uses, with evidence to substantiate health claims,” Stringer explains. Although Marinova works with two non-native species, Stringer says the company is interested in ingredients that may be derived from native species.
Stringer highlights the networks between industry partners and researchers as an important part of what the MBCRC will offer. “There is a lot of entrepreneurial activity in the sector, but a lot of it is also quite disparate. The MBCRC is really bringing that together, with some great opportunities to create a critical mass of industry,” he says.
Over the past five years, Qponics Limited in Queensland has developed a commercial farming system for marine microalgae, initially a species of Nannochloropsis. Managing Director Graeme Barnett says it is partnering with the MB-CRC to refine microalgae cultivation, harvesting and processing technologies to extract omega-3 oils and high-quality proteins from the microalgae for the human food market. This will help the company to capture a greater share of the value chain within Australia.
Working with the MBCRC, which includes 11 leading Australian research organisations, Barnett also hopes to examine the potential of other microalgae held in their research collections. “That’s a valuable opportunity that might otherwise never be available to a small business like Qponics or even a much larger one,” he says.
Justin Coombs is the newly appointed CEO for the MBCRC and he says that sustainable economic development is very much the intended outcome of MB-CRC. “We’re looking to catalyse the development of a whole new industry. One of the challenges ahead is to find the people the industry will need to do that, and that is “the focus of our overarching ‘Connect, Educate and Train Program’,” he says.
There will be opportunities for people interested in translational roles, bridging science and industry. There will also be opportunities for jobs and businesses in regional areas, which Coombs expects will be major beneficiaries of a new industry focused on creating new processing techniques and the highest quality value-added products from diverse marine feedstocks.
For more information on the MBCRC, or to become involved in its programs, visit mbcrc.com