Marine Biotechnology in Mediterranean Sea basin

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The Mediterranean Sea is a semi-enclosed basin with high temperature and salinity, and decreasing freshwater due to dams and river diversions. The Mediterranean Sea has unique characteristics as it communicates and is being affected by three seas and oceans with very diverse features: the Atlantic Ocean to the west, the Black Sea to the north-east and the Red Sea through the Suez Canal to the southeast. It is characterized by a combination of coastal and open sea dynamics and has been often referred to as a “miniature ocean” and a “physical laboratory” for marine environmental research.

The Mediterranean basin is ca. 3,680 km long with an average width of 700 km and is divided into the Western and Eastern basins, which are separated by the straits of Sicily. The Western basin (mean depth, ca. 1,600 m) consists of two deep basins: the Algero Provençal basin and the Tyrrhenian Sea. The Eastern Mediterranean includes the Ionian, Adriatic and Aegean Seas, and the Levantine basin.

The principal traits of this semi-enclosed ‘miniature ocean’ can be summarized as:

  • limited freshwater inputs;
  • microtidal regime;
  • high oxygen concentrations;
  • high deep-sea temperature (always above 12.8°C); and
  • oligotrophic conditions with low nutrient concentrations which typically decrease eastward.

Given its unique characteristics, changes in the world ocean affect the Mediterranean sooner than the world ocean itself. While the Mediterranean is very diverse in habitats and rich in biodiversity, it is a sensitive area with a highly stressed ecosystem which requires particular attention to protect the unique marine genetic resources.

Being a shared sea between European, North African and Middle East countries, the Mediterranean is an area of strong cultural, societal and economic gradients. Nevertheless, there is a strong Mediterranean heritage that acts as catalyst and transforms these gradients into opportunities rather than barriers. This is also the case for Marine Sciences which, despite important differences of capacities between countries, has always played an integrating role and promoted the regional cooperation in the Mediterranean Sea. Important stakeholders in this process are the regional commissions and conventions and the national research performing organizations (RPO) that have in some cases organized regional associations namely: CIESM (the intergovernmental science commission that works through committees, organizes workshops and conferences and publishes reports), UNEP/MAP (that supports the implementation of the Barcelona Convention for Environmental Protection), RAC/SPA (the Regional Activity Centre for Specially Protected Areas established by the Contracting Parties to the Barcelona Convention and its Protocols in order to assist Mediterranean countries in implementing the Protocol concerning Specially Protected Areas and Biological Diversity in the Mediterranean), MedGOOS (the regional alliance of the IOC GOOS program for ocean observations) and MOON (the Mediterranean component of EuroGOOS for the development of operational oceanography).

Overarching regional science strategies, plans and policies

There is currently no overarching regional science strategy or plan specifically focusing on marine biotechnology research and development. General marine science issues are considered by organisations such as CIESM and projects such as the SEAS-ERA Project.

Research priorities

The recently published Marine Board position paper "Marine Biotechnology: A New Vision and Strategy for Europe" sets out a science and policy agenda for the next decade in this field and highlights pharmaceuticals as one of the main priorities for Securing human health and wellbeing in Europe. According to this report the other priorities in Europe in the field of marine biotechnology are the following: Sustainable supply of high quality and healthy food, Sustainable alternative sources of energy, and Securing environmental health...

For the SEAS‐ERA Mediterranean SRA the priorities should be similar but due to some of the unique features of the Mediterranean (the Mediterranean is considered one of the 25 hot spots for global marine biodiversity with between 4% and 18% of the world marine species), some fields of research may have greater potential development compared to others. This has been taken into consideration in setting up the following priorities and also the research interests of the wider Mediterranean science community.

Bioprospecting for Marine Drugs and Fine Chemicals

Great biodiversity implies great chemical diversity. The Mediterranean with its high biodiversity in terms of species and habitats represents a huge potential source of new drugs, innovative treatments and diagnostic tools for human health and well‐being (including pharmaceuticals, neutraceuticals and dietary integrators). Bioprospecting for Marine Drugs and Fine Chemicals should therefore be considered one of the major priorities for Marine Biotechnology within the Seas‐ERA Net Mediterranean agenda with a focus on basic research (taxonomy, systematics, physiology, molecular genetics and chemical ecology) of marine species to increase chances of success in finding novel biologically active compounds as pharmaceuticals and health care products (including cosmetics) and industrial products and processes. In the Mediterranean Sea, the majority of bioactive (antibacterial, antiviral, cytotoxic or antifouling) molecules until now have been isolated from benthic species: algae and, particularly, animals such as sponges, bryozoans, echinoderms, ascidians and mollusks. For example, aplidine, a compound derived from the Mediterranean ascidian Aplidium albicans has been shown to be a powerful anticancer agent and is currently in clinical trials for a variety of cancers. But there is also great potential of finding new compounds from other marine sources such as microalgae and microbes that have been relatively unexplored until now. In addition to applications concerning human health, there is also great interest in discovering natural additives in foods, vitamins, oils, antioxidants and cofactors which enhance general well‐being. Current high value chemical markets from marine organisms are focused on a limited number of high value chemicals such as carotenoids due to their high market value were projected to reach 77,000 million Euro in 2010. Finally, there is interest in discovering new enzymes, biopolymers and biomaterials for industrial applications.

Technologies to Increase Sustainability of Aquaculture Production

The growing demand for marine food will need to be increasingly delivered through intensive aquaculture especially in the Mediterranean where sea food is part of the traditional diet of most countries and is at the basis of what has become known world‐wide as the “Mediterranean diet”. Commercial aquaculture continues to face challenges in understanding and controlling reproduction, early life‐stage development, growth, nutrition, disease and animal health management and environmental interactions and sustainability. Hence, the Seas‐ERA Net Mediterranean agenda should promote technologies to increase sustainability of aquaculture production, including alternative preventive and therapeutic measures to enhance environmental welfare, sustainable production technologies for feed supply, and zero‐waste recirculation systems.

Biofuels from Micro‐ and Macroalgae

There are many examples of the production of bio‐energy from marine organisms, but Production of Biofuels from Micro‐ and Macroalgae perhaps represents one of the most promising options to harvest this huge energy potential. Microalgae (e.g. Chlorella) are renewable and there is no damage to the environment. Biomass can be converted by bacteria and microalgae to fuels such as methane and biodiesel. Unfortunately biomass is not economically competitive with current sources of energy. But biotechnology may make biomass more viable by enhancing photosynthesis to produce more of a fuel, or modifying biomass to favour fuel production. Algae genome sequencing can provide new insights and major breakthroughs in this field helping understand the molecular and physiological mechanisms and steps involve in the production of biofuel which are crucial to optimise its production

Strategic documents

  • Seas-ERA Mediterranean Strategic Research Agenda [1].
  • Briand F (Ed.) (2011). New Partnerships for Blue Biotechnology Development: innovative solutions from the sea. Proceedings of the CIESM International Workshop, Monaco, 11-12 Nov 2010 [2].

Infrastructures and coordination and support capacities / initiatives

The Mediterranean Science Commission (CIESM) [3] represents the most important regional coordination and support capacity/initiative in the Mediterranean in relation to marine biotechnology research and development. CIESM was founded in 1908 and formally constituted in 1919, under the leadership of Prince Albert I of Monaco, to federate marine research and explorations across the Mediterranean and Black Seas. Egypt, France, Greece, Italy, Monaco, Spain, Tunisia and Turkey were founder members while this number grew steadily to reach 22 members in 2013 [4]. Aspects of marine biotechnology have been covered by CIESM in its workshops since 1997, most recently looking at Mediterranean marine extremophiles [5]. CIESM produces authoritative, independent reports on the status and trends of their marine systems. These widely-read Monographs (now counting 43) cover a diversity of issues, from the control of coastal erosion to novel contaminants, or from the role of cetaceans to the function of marine viruses. Of CIESM’s six committees, C4 works on marine microbiology and biotechnology. There are currently no specific research programmes in marine biotechnology but a recent report examined the role of blue biotechnology in answering a number of specific challenges in the Mediterranean marine ecosystem [6]. Subjects included integration of marine biotechnology and nanotechnology for control of ship ballast water bio-pollution; marine biomolecules for chemistry, health, cosmetics, flavours and fragrances and vaccine adjuvants and stabilisers; new marine biomaterials and polymers.

Major Initiatives

CIESM operates a ‘Blog’ forum covering important Marine Biotech topics such as Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) of Marine Genetic Resources (MGR) and geography of marine active biomolecules [7].

Major observations, trends and future prospects

The Mediterranean Science Committee (CIESM) is currently (in 2013) undertaking an assessment of the marine biotechnology potential of the region and of the different Mediterranean coastal states.



This draft profile is based on available online information sources and contributions from various country experts and stakeholders. It does not aim nor claim to be complete or final, but should be considered as a dynamic and living information resource that will be elaborated, updated and improved as more information becomes available, including further inputs from experts and stakeholders.

The information on this page is based on information initially compiled by the European Marine Board as part of the CSA MarineBiotech Project activities (2011-2013).