Marine Biotechnology in New Zealand

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National strategy for biotechnology

Biotechnology has been identified by New Zealand’s Government as integral to the country’s long term future economic growth . The latest New Zealand Biotechnology Strategy[1] was published in October 2002 by the former Ministry of Research, Science and Technology (MoRST, replaced since 2011 by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, MBIE[2]). As part of the Growth and Innovation framework of 2002, the Biotechnology Taskforce of MoRST published in 2003 a report[3], establishing a framework for action to develop the growth and competitiveness of biotechnology within the following 10 years. The country’s bio-economy was ranked eighth in the world in 2014[4]. The revenue generated by the biotechnology sector (essentially by intellectual property rights and patents for methodological and technological inventions) reached NZ$351M in 2008-2009. New Zealand has a strong interest in commercial benefit from biotechnologies and develops this sector’s international market notably thanks to New Zealand Trade & Enterprise (NZTE)[5], the Government's international business development agency[6]. Moreover, the 2010 New Zealand bioenergy strategy[7] recognizes algae as a basis for biodiesel production, although it indicates that woody biomass has by far the highest potential for biofuel production[7]. In 2015 the Crown Research Institute SCION[8] developed the New Zealand Biofuels Roadmap to define optimum pathways for the production and use of liquid biofuels at a large scale in New Zealand but it still focuses on wood-based resources as well.[9] Agricultural biotechnology does however maintain a dominant position, of 168 biotechnology companies surveyed in 2007, over 100 stated an involvement in agricultural biosciences[10]. New Zealand is dedicated to promote biotechnology, notably through its people’s education on the matter with tools such as the Biotechnology Learning Hub.[11] There are nevertheless some obstacles to the growth of biotechnology in New Zealand, the biggest ones being the country’s small size and distance from the markets of North America and Europe. New Zealand’s biotechnology sector faces a funding gap because of the lack of returns delivered by the industry.[12]


Within the 2014-2016 European Union – New Zealand Science and Technology Cooperation Roadmap[13], the MBIE and the European Community elaborated a cooperation plan on the development of a bio-economy. It analyses the areas of common interests with priorities such as “Unlocking the potential of aquatic living resources within environmental and biological constraints” and sets up a plan of action including transfer of information and opportunities for joint action to tackle common challenges related to biotechnology, and notably marine biotechnology[14] with Callaghan Innovation[15] as a strategic “one-stop” business R&D support agency.[16]The EU also funded the PharmaSea[17] project on marine bio-actives under the 7th Framework Programme involving The University of Waikato’s Environmental Research Institute.

The Australia New Zealand Biotechnology Partnering Fund[18] (ANZBPF) was established in 2003 in response to recommendations from the Growth and Innovation Framework (GIF) Biotechnology Taskforce and is administered by NZTE. It was designed to facilitate and accelerate trans-Tasman biotechnology industry collaboration. This fund supported trans-Tasman alliances that develop greater regional strength, sustained profitability, access to, and competitiveness in, international markets for New Zealand’s biotechnology products and services. For the period 2008-2009, NZ$4.5 million were made available for projects related to the development of biotechnology in the region.[19] This fund was closed off in early 2011. It has been replaced with other initiatives in Asia, for example with Taiwan.

National strategy for marine biotechnology

There is no specific national strategy for marine biotechnology in New Zealand. New Zealand, as well as Australia, focuses its marine biotechnology sector on aquaculture and marine bioactives. In 2012 the Government adopted the Aquaculture Strategy[20] and Five-year Action Plan[21]. The industry-led strategy and action plan establish the government’s pathway to enabling the aquaculture sector to grow. The New Zealand Aquaculture Strategy launched a commitment to support the maximization of opportunities for innovation, environmental sustainability, protection of Mãori objectives and an economic drive towards a market target of over NZ$ 1B per annum by 2025. The Five-Year Action Plan for the Aquaculture Industry provides for a cohesive and prioritized approach across government to the aquaculture sector, one of its core objectives is to increase value through R&D. Although neither document refers to biotechnology, funding rounds since adoption of the strategy have included aquaculture biotechnology. The aquaculture industry in New Zealand specializes in farming the green lipped mussel (Perna canaliculus) and the Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas). Other species that are farmed are king salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) and the New Zealand abalone (known locally as pāua, Haliotis iris).[22] Aquaculture New Zealand[23] is an organization representing the country’s aquaculture sector, which helps the coordination toward the goal implemented by the New Zealand Aquaculture strategy of becoming a Billion-dollar sector by 2025.[24]

Centres of marine biotechnology research

In New Zealand, a number of organizations are involved in biotechnology research and development including universities, private companies and Crown Research Institutes (CRIs, which are corporatized Crown entities charged with conducting scientific research to benefit New Zealand).

  • The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research[25](NIWA) works in marine biodiversity, bio-oil from algae, and aquaculture, helping New Zealand's aquaculture industry achieve its target of $1 billion value by 2025. The Australia New Zealand Biotechnology Partnership Fund has supported one project on a small-scale, to facilitate links in the area of natural bio-actives, including marine-origin, managed by NIWA.[26] The Institute has the largest team of aquaculture specialists and dedicated facilities in New Zealand.
  • The Cawthron Institute[27] is New Zealand's largest independent science organization, it draws funding from many sources including the Cawthron Foundation (a registered charity established to support research developed and delivered by Cawthron) and the MBIE Contestable Research Fund.[28] It has an aquatic biotechnology department involved in algal technologies, aquaculture, environmental monitoring and seafood safety and it works with regional councils, government departments, major industries, private companies, and other research organizations throughout New Zealand and around the world. The Institute has significant experience with algal biology and a commercial algal production system for its shellfish hatchery, and is also involved in developing and commercially exploiting its discoveries.[29]

Some regions and cities of New Zealand are particularly involved in the development of marine biotechnology.

  • In Auckland, The Institute for Innovation in Biotechnology[30] (IIB) works in close association with the School of Biological Sciences[31] (SBS) at the University of Auckland, and focuses on industry partnerships to accelerate innovation and develop new models of bioscience enterprise training. The co-location of companies in the IIB has created New Zealand’s largest biotech cluster in the heart of the University of Auckland.[32]
  • The Northland region[33] has developed a strategy to grow its aquaculture sector by 20 percent a year until 2030. Northland’s aquaculture sector is supported by the NIWA facility at Bream Bay Aquaculture Park.
  • Wellington is the headquarters for NIWA and Callaghan innovation.[34] In the Wellington region[35], the University of Victoria’s Centre for Biodiscovery[36] does research on marine compounds with potential pharmaceutical activity such as Peloruside A, a compound isolated from a marine sponge used in treatments against cancer.[37]
  • The “Top of the South[38], especially the Nelson region, is where the majority of New Zealand’s aquaculture produce is grown. The region is the leading producer of farmed Greenshell mussels, King Salmon and Pacific Oysters. Nelson is home for example to the Cawthron institute and its aquaculture park.[39]
  • In the University of Canterbury[40], the Marine Chemistry Group is exploring the marine flora and fauna of New Zealand in a systematic fashion. Research includes the detection, isolation and structure determination of new antiviral or anticancer agents from bioactive NZ marine organisms, the isolation and cultivation of bioactive marine fungi and the synthesis of polymer therapeutics for use as targeted anticancer and anti-HIV drugs.[41]
  • The University of Waikato[42]’s Environmental Research Institute is a partner in an ongoing EU-funded marine bio-actives project PharmaSea.[17] The project is funded by the European Union under its FP7 program and involves 24 partners from 13 countries aiming at finding novel antibiotics through research on marine microbes and new bioactive compounds. Current activities include agrochemical applications of marine bio-actives and biotechnology for aquaculture.

Public – Private partnerships on marine biotechnology

NIWA[25] has collaborated in the past with a New Zealand based sea food company Ngai Tahu Seafood, to explore the cosmetics market by isolating and identifying bio-actives from sea food by-products and by-catch species, and with MalCorp Bio-discoveries, the investment arm of the Malaghan Institute in Wellington, on anti-inflammatory compounds for pharmaceuticals, but it isn’t clear if these are current activities. A multidisciplinary team of marine and cell biologists and chemists was assembled for TerraMarine Pharmaceuticals[43], a joint venture partnership between NIWA, the Malaghan Institute[44], and Crop & Food Research (now Plant & Food Research[45]), with the University of Auckland providing significant expertise in marine natural products chemistry. This ongoing partnership started in 2002 with the aim of discovering and developing new anti-inflammatory drugs from New Zealand’s biota, notably toward the development of a gout relief drug.[46] As of 2006, TerraMarine had identified two promising anti-inflammatory compounds from marine organisms. The major project supporting this work has now been completed. NIWA holds an important representation of New Zealand’s marine biodiversity in its collections, including the internationally significant NIWA Invertebrate Collection(NIC).[47]

Under NIWA’s coordination, one of the world’s largest facilities for manufacturing biofuel from algae using sewage is in operation in Christchurch, resulting from the cooperation between Invercargill engineering firm BL Rayners Ltd and Christchurch recycling company Solvent Rescue Ltd, under the name Solray Energy. They have developed a MK2 plant that turns sewage algae into crude oil.[48] After having undergone primary treatment, sewage that is generated in the city is conducted to a High Rate Algal Pond (HRAP), where the algae is propagated and the harvested algae is turned into biofuel via a Super Critical Water Reactor (SCWR).[49] NIWA also uses wastewater and algae to produce biogas[50]: a purpose-built covered anaerobic pond on a 400-sow pig farm in Taranaki was developed, designed to contain biogas so that it could be extracted through pipes for later use as a fuel. The next phase is to adapt biogas recovery for the dairy sector to explore opportunities and possibly to convert biogas into transport fuel. As part of the ‘Biogas Transport Fuel Cluster’, NIWA belongs to an industry group that is actively demonstrating, testing and evaluating the feasibility of biogas-to-fuel projects.

Since 2003, NIWA has set up a program for the support of the aquaculture sector (salmon and abalone) and its diversification. In 2007, the institute established broodstock development programmes for three new high-value aquaculture species: kingfish, hāpuku, and pāua[51] which has resulted in the implementation of a commercial scale hatchery with 500.000 fry/ year for the yellowtail Kingfish – Seriola lalandi. They also master the larval stage of the Hapuku (Polyprion oxygeneios) and are starting the picking of growth stocks.

In the micro algal field, a highly sophisticated, multi-vessel photo bioreactor (PBR) is developed by the scientists at Cawthron Institute[27], which uses an innovative growth program with multivariant analysis and control to simulate as near-industrial conditions as possible and optimize algal performance to improve the production of algae products.[52] Cawthron maintains a nationally significant culture collection of micro-algae that includes unique species – the Cawthron Institute Culture Collection of Microalgae (CICCM) and aquaculture species, which are being grown in the Cawthron aquaculture park and studied for commercial and research applications. The institute possesses technologies to cryopreserve and store algal strains of commercial value for clients who have identified strains that produce bioactive compounds of interest. Cawthron has developed commercial-scale systems to maximize micro-algal productivity for the production of high value nutraceuticals.[53] On the long term, the aim is to develop algal production systems for use in large-scale biomass production. The institute also grows toxic microalgae in containment, which supports work in harmful algal bloom (HABs) research, and enables the microalgae to be sold as certified reference standards for toxin analysis. Cawthron is investigating the potential for algae as sources of ingredients for higher-value and functional foods, exploring the potential of the bioactives from algae when consumed and accumulated by shellfish.[54] One of Cawthron's key clients for PBR is nutraceutical company Supreme Biotechnology Ltd[55] which grows and extracts the high-value algae compound astaxanthin on a commercial scale for the global market. The Cawthron Natural Compounds (CNC) team specializes in extracting complex organic compounds sourced from algae and other plants, it then provides the purified compounds to laboratories worldwide for use as Certified Reference Materials for food safety testing and research. The Cawthron Institute manages the national collection of micro-algae and cyanobacteria. This is supported by state-of-the-art cryopreservation technology and contains many unique species, including those from unique environments around New Zealand, the Pacific and Antarctica.[56]

It is also important to note that Cawthron runs one of the larger shellfish spat raising operations. Cawthron has developed various innovative technology systems for hatchery and nursery.[57] Its Greenshell Mussel (GSM) breeding programme is now being realised by the industry consortium SPATnz, who have secured Government funding to develop New Zealand's first commercial scale shellfish hatchery.[58]

NZBIO[59] is the national peak body representing the bioscience-based industries of New Zealand. In 2008, a move towards the emerging international dialogue on referring to a bio-economy was adopted, with NZBIO now operating under the tagline “Creating a Sustainable Bio-economy in New Zealand”. NZBIO produced with Grow Wellington the “Making Biotechnology Work For New Zealand” guideline.[60]

Callaghan innovation[15] is a government agency entrusted with the task of supporting the whole industry/innovation sector in New Zealand. This includes hi-tech businesses, and notably biotechnology. Approximately $140 million a year in business funding and grants is channeled through Grants for R&D, in order to help accelerate innovation by firms in New Zealand. Callaghan’s expertise focuses among others on biology and biochemistry, and proteins and bioactive peptides.[61] Access to this particular funding is managed through Grow Wellington[62], the economic development agency working to accelerate economic growth in the Wellington region and make it more internationally competitive.


NXT Fuels[63], formerly known as Aquaflow Bionomic Corporation[64] is a leading algal technology companies, producing new biofuels and biochemicals from algae. Its patented process treats wastewater and creates "green crude oil" without genetic modification of the algae.[65] In 2008 Aquaflow collaborated with Air New Zealand and Boeing to develop biofuels from algae [66] but Air New Zealand eventually used jatropha biofuel as Aquaflow was unable to supply any fuel.[67] In 2009 the company partnered up with Solray Energy[68], another New Zealand major biotechnology company, to combine Aquaflow's methods of harvesting algae grown from wastewater streams and Solray's process of turning that algae into fuel.[69]

Plant & Food Research[45] is a New Zealand-based science company providing research and development that adds value to fruit, vegetable, crop and food products. It is a New Zealand government-owned Crown Research Institute. It has a Bioprocessing Laboratory and Pilot Plant that aim at developing real products from marine compound extraction and modification research, in order for partners to transfer these products for efficient production at industrial scale. The company has developed a number of biomaterials for industrial use, including collagen nanofibers extracted from hoki skin. A formulation containing natural antimicrobial agents has been developed for processing by electrospinning into nanofibers that can be used in the manufacture of air filters for home ventilation systems.[70]

The Malaghan Institute[44] is New Zealand’s leading medical research institute focused on finding cures for cancer, asthma and allergy, multiple sclerosis and infectious disease. It is located at Victoria University of Wellington. Its research includes marine biotechnology, notably through the TerraMarine Pharmaceuticals partnership.

New Zealand Pharmaceuticals Ltd[71], (NZP) is a biotechnology and manufacturing industry. Its work includes large scale extraction and purification of active ingredients from biomass (marine and terrestrial products) for pharmaceutical applications. NZP was founded by Professors John Blunt and Murray Munro from the University of Canterbury and funded by the US National Cancer Institute to scale up the extraction of Halichondrin B, the active ingredient found in the New Zealand marine sponge, Lissodendoryx spp. The pure Halichondrin B was then used by the NCI to establish the efficacy of the anti-cancer potency and recently commercialized by the Japanese pharmaceutical company, Eisai Co Ltd.[72]


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This draft country 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 Meredith Lloyd-Evans (BioBridge) as part of the CSA MarineBiotech Project activities (2011-2013).