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27 June 2013

Bernard Kloareg: unlocking marine genomics’ potentials

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Marine genomics needs to raise its profile to ensure that relevant researchers and industries make the most of the amazing resources found in our oceans

Bernard Kloareg is the director of the Station biologique de Roscoff, a major science facility for marine research located in the Brittany region of France.  He is the coordinator of an EU-funded knowledge transfer project called Marine Genomics for Users (MG4U), designed to make the tools used in marine genomics available to the wider research and industry community. Ultimately, the future European marine biological resource centre (EMBRC), an infrastructure gathering major European marine research centres, will continue to carry out knowledge transfer of marine genomic research. Kloareg tells about the potential of this field, based on high-throughput genome sequencing for food and pharmaceutical applications and for environmental monitoring.

What is genomics?
It is the study of genes encoded in DNA, and of all their products. These include RNA, proteins and metabolites from processes involving these proteins. Genomics is based in the first place on high-throughput sequencing methods. When I started using these techniques 15 years ago, it took six months to decipher the code of a single gene. Nowadays, no more than two weeks are necessary to sequence the entire human genome, which is made of tens of thousands of genes.  As a result, genomic information fills huge databases and requires development in bioinformatics to process this data.

Why did marine genomics not develop sooner?
Since oceans are less accessible than lands, marine genomics developed later than terrestrial genomics. Until recently, few genomes of marine species were available. Today, around twenty macroscopic species, like fish, have had their genome sequenced, plus hundreds of marine bacteria, micro-algae and protists, which are single-cell organisms that are not bacteria, whose genome is much smaller.

To what extend can marine genomics be useful in research?
Marine genomics’ uses are manifold. As an example, an international team led by the Roscoff station, recently achieved the sequencing of a macroscopic red alga called Irish moss (Chondrus crispus), which is representative of the lineage of red algae. Fundamentally, this work will help us understand the origin and the evolution of seaweeds.  Therefore this will give us a better picture of the tree of life.

Marine genomics can also be used as a tool for environmental monitoring. For example, regular mass-sequencing of seawater samples, can help in monitoring the abundance of some plankton species, a marker linked to global warming. Therefore, it could also be of use to policy makers involved in marine governance.

What are marine genomics’ potential applications?
Several compounds are extracted from algae, such as thickeners for food industry, proteins, or molecules of interest to the pharmaceutical industry. A better knowledge of seaweeds' genomes, like that of Irish moss, enables the identification of the most productive species, for example.

Similarly, in aquaculture, marine genomics has been applied to the most valuable products. The oyster genome was recently deciphered. Salmon will soon follow. As for marine bacteria, they contain enzymes with the ability to degrade biomass. Therefore, sequencing the genes coding for these enzymes is a prerequisite to exploiting them for industrial purposes. 

Why are these applications not more widespread?
We realised that there is a huge gap between fundamental research in marine genomics and potential end-users such as industry. Small companies in the field of aquaculture or marine resource transformation lack research and development capabilities and skills to fully exploit the potential of this field. As for big food industry companies, they process terrestrial resources and have little knowledge of marine bio-resources and environment.

Why do we need to share marine knowledge more widely?
By making marine genomic research results easily accessible, we aim to keep scientists and relevant industries informed of progress in the field as a means to facilitate potential applications. We even went further in MG4Uwe conducted interviews with project scientists involved in the sequencing of one hundred genomes. One of our partners, the knowledge transfer organisation AquaTT, based in Dublin, Ireland, were able to match what scientists know with what end-users such as industries were looking for. provides its content to all media free of charge. We would appreciate if you could acknowledge as the source of the content.