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Department of Communications/
News Bureau
22 Davis Hall, 10 Lippitt Road, Kingston, RI 0288
Phone: 401-874-2116 Fax: 401-874-7872

URI research boosting marine biotech in Rhode Island

KINGSTON, R.I. -- July 31, 2002 -- Discussions about biotechnology in Rhode Island most often focus on efforts to attract medical biotech companies to the area. But it’s the marine biotech field that may hold the greatest promise for boosting the state’s economy. That’s according to several scientists at the University of Rhode Island who are making important advances on a wide range of marine research. Marta Gomez-Chiarri works in the lab with a graduate student.

"There are already a few companies in the area that are developing products from ocean resources, and the Slater Centers are helping to fund other emerging companies," said Marta Gomez-Chiarri, URI assistant professor of fisheries. "With all of the marine research going on here there’s a lot of growth potential in Rhode Island."

The marine biotechnology field uses a wide variety of technological applications of marine life to solve human and environmental problems. For instance, URI researchers are studying marine organisms to develop products for preventing biofouling, to identify bacteria that feed on pollutants, to find potential pharmaceuticals, and to isolate a gene mutation that quickly builds muscle in pen-raised fish, among other projects.

A resident of Jamestown, Gomez-Chiarri (shown here with graduate student) is developing vaccines and treatments that can be used to protect finfish and shellfish against diseases commonly found in the aquaculture industry.

"Aquaculture facilities can be stressful on fish, and that stress can depress their immune system. So if a disease outbreak occurs, it can quickly kill all the fish and force the company to close. That’s exactly what happened to a Quonset farm in 1998," she said.

The culprit in that case was Vibrio harveyi, a common marine bacterium that can infect many different species of fish. A similar disease outbreak is now running rampant through Maine aquaculture facilities, where a killer virus is forcing the closure of salmon farms up and down the coast.

As she works to develop the vaccine, Gomez-Chiarri is also studying the best way to administer it. Some vaccines only work on adult fish and each fish must be injected by hand. Others can be administered via a vaccine bath whereby fish "bathe" in a vaccine solution and pump the water through their gills and mouth and into their system.

URI Assistant Professor of Pharmacy David Rowley of Narragansett is also studying marine bacteria, but his research is aimed at discovering new drugs to cure human diseases. He’s one of a handful of marine microbial natural products chemists around the world, researchers who study marine microbes to see if they can inhibit the growth of human pathogens.

"We know that many marine organisms produce molecules that they use as chemical defenses, to communicate with each other, or in other natural ecological roles," Rowley said. "Some of these molecules also inhibit the growth of potential competitors. It’s possible that those same molecules could be used to inhibit pathogenic organisms."

Rowley is identifying the molecules responsible for various chemical interactions between organisms and isolating the chemical compounds involved. He hopes that some of the compounds may be structurally unique and may inhibit pathogens in new ways. If so, they could become new anti-bacterial agents.

"We need to develop new methods for treating infections because so many viruses and bacteria are becoming resistant to known antibiotics," he said. Rowley is targeting his efforts on finding inhibitors for the bacteria that causes the common Staph infection, as well as inhibitors to HIV and a pox virus.

NMercedes Rivero-Hudecarragansett resident Mercedes Rivero-Hudec (shown here) has a very different take on marine biotechnology. Rather than studying marine life to prevent disease as are Rowley and Gomez-Chiarri, she’s studying marine life to prevent corrosion.

An associate professor of chemical engineering at URI, Rivero-Hudec said "when a surface like a ship’s hull or a dock is exposed to bacteria in an aqueous environment, the bacteria attach themselves to the surface and form a film on it, sort of like dental plaque on your teeth." Some of these bacteria promote corrosion and encourage barnacles and other organisms to become attached, while other bacteria do just the opposite.

So Rivero-Hudec is working to identify which microorganisms promote corrosion and which inhibit it. She’s also testing special corrosion-preventing coatings being developed by engineering colleague Richard Brown to evaluate their interaction with the microorganisms in question.

"It’s a complicated project because so many different factors play a role in the corrosion process," she said.

The results of this research, and many other marine biotechnology investigations at URI, could lead to growth in the biotech industry in Rhode Island and give a boost to the state’s economy. "Once again we have examples of the critical role URI research can play in the economic growth and diversification of Rhode Island, and particularly in the biotech sector," concluded Jeffrey Seemann, dean of URI's College of the Environment and Life Sciences and the university's leader for biotechnology research and development.

For Information: Marta Gomez-Chiarri 874-2917, Todd McLeish 874-7892

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