While our niche is to do basic scientific research on microbial ocean life, and to educate the next generation of ocean scientists, we have launched targeted initiatives and core facilities that put our science to work for the public. Through the following commercialization efforts, we are finding ocean-based solutions to today’s complex problems:
1. We house and operate the Congressionally-designated National Center for Marine Algae and Microbiota, the world’s largest and most diverse collection of marine phytoplankton. This center, known as the NCMA, offers over 3,000 strains of marine microbes from around the world to support more than 2,000 scientific or industrial researchers in 40 countries. With the recent construction of a custom greenhouse completed in November 2016, we have the capacity to not only grow industrial quantities of algae, but also to serve as a center for developing universal algal standards, and exploring new and varied ways that algae could be incorporated into products. These efforts are currently in their early stages and rely on philanthropy in order to become better established.
One of the projects underway by NCMA scientists is an algae-based fish feed additive for the aquaculture industry. Currently, the Atlantic salmon and Arctic char aquaculture industries feed fishmeal or plant-based oils to their farmed fish in order to supply them with the healthy omega-3 fatty acids so prevalent in their wild cousins. Marine scientists are concerned about the immense volumes of wild ocean fish that must be caught to feed these farms, a fact that also involves food safety issues for consumers, not to mention environmental pollution. We have designed an experimental feeding study that will use two optimal strains of microalgae from our NCMA collection to provide those beneficial omega-3 fatty acids to farmed char and salmon instead.
2. The Center for Venture Research for Seafood Solutions (CVR) is a Bigelow Laboratory initiative to apply our science and technology to make seafood as safe as possible for human consumption, develop innovative approaches to mitigating climate and clean water issues in marine ecosystems, and relieve bottlenecks to healthy growth in the aquaculture industry. We accomplish these goals by matching our cutting edge research capacity with stated R&D needs from stakeholders (industry, policy makers, and public at large) to address pressing issues. For example, Maine seaweed and shellfish farmers approached the CVR with an urgent need for testing their products for arsenic and other heavy metals. We responded by installing the instrumentation necessary to do those analyses for this nascent industry locally. This previously required a farmer to ship samples to California, Washington state, or Germany. Through the CVR, we have established beneficial collaborations with dozens of notable shellfish and seaweed farmers in the northeast, on the west coast, and now internationally as well as trade groups and nonprofit collaborators. Further, we use this platform to enable workforce development and generate novel education opportunities.
Some of the other issues we are working on include developing environmentally friendly nutritional supplements, cosmetics, medicines, and biofuels. We are developing real-time, hand-held DNA testing technology known as “PCR” for the aquaculture industry. The device can detect, for example, Vibrio, a pathogenic bacteria that can cause foodborne infection in raw or undercooked shellfish. The technology can be utilized on-site, in the middle of an oyster farm, for instance, for direct, quick testing and results that will ensure the safety of seafood.
3. The Single Cell Genomics Center at Bigelow Laboratory is the world's first facility of its kind, offering a comprehensive suite of services from single cell separation through genome sequencing and bioinformatics. Established in 2009, the SCGC provides services to Bigelow scientists and the broad scientific community that enable cutting-edge research projects ranging in scope from microbial processes and carbon cycling in the oceans, to renewable energy production, and human health. This center enables a type of research that was impossible just a few years ago. Recent discoveries made by SCGC researchers have been reported in leading research publications, including biochemical pathways for carbon fixation in the deep ocean, detailed information on viral infections and predation of marine microorganisms, identities of non-photosynthetic microorganisms that harvest sunlight, and global biogeography patterns of marine microbes.
4. Bigelow Analytical Services (BAS) offers expert, state-of the-art analytical services to public and private entities in a variety of fields including marine chemistry, aquaculture, pharmacy, and fisheries. We were the first in the nation to be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to conduct quantitative biotoxin analysis, replacing the traditional "mouse assay" method, to determine shellfish safety that aids in fisheries management. The Laboratory works closely with the Maine Department of Marine Resources and similar entities in other states to test shellfish samples for biotoxins that can cause, for instance, paralytic or amnesic shellfish poisoning.
In mid-October 2016, unprecedented toxic algae blooms of a diatom known as Pseudo-nitzschia appeared in several places along the New England coast, from Downeast Maine to Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island. Most likely spurred by the combined effects of increased runoff, warming surface water temperature, and other impacts of climate change, the bloom caused a recall of five million pounds of shellfish over the Columbus Day holiday weekend, and significant closures to shellfishing for several weeks. This widespread bloom of Pseudo-nitzschia produced a neurotoxin that can cause amnesic shellfish poisoning when ingested. This species has caused significant problems on the West Coast, including the death of whales, gulls, and forage fish and shutting down the California Dungeness crab fishery. However, it is not common to see large, toxic blooms of Pseudo-nitzschia in New England. BAS scientists worked swiftly to perform the biotoxin analysis necessary to measure the bloom’s toxicity in numerous locations. Amazingly, thanks in large part to our speed and expertise, there were no reports of sickness from shellfish poisoning during that New England bloom. We continue to analyze data from this and subsequent harmful algal blooms with collaborators and develop our efficiency and predictive capabilities.
5. To help with “pump priming” for commercialization, the Laboratory’s Sash A. and Mary M. Spencer Entrepreneurial Fund has been providing seed grants to enable our scientists to bring their state-of-the-art technologies to market. The investments provide Bigelow scientists with the time to prove their concepts, demonstrate their expertise, and attract commercial partners. Alongside regular trainings for our scientists on how to pitch their work and build a strong relationship with industry, the Spencer Fund is providing essential support that is resulting in a growth in our commercialization efforts. Spencer Fund seed grants to Bigelow scientists have attracted matching grants from the Maine Technology Institute (MTI) and the Shelby Cullom Davis Charitable Fund. Additional matching contributions to the Spencer Fund are welcomed. In addition to the livestock methane suppression project and handheld DNA testing technology for use in aquaculture mentioned above, Spencer Fund grants have been awarded this year to: 1) a project that will develop a set of standard, “mock communities” of marine microbes for genetic studies; 2) a reliable seed catalog for the sea green farming industry, and; 3) an algal growth system for generating diesel fuel additives.
Other core facilities at Bigelow Laboratory include the J.J. MacIsaac Facility for Aquatic Cytometry, the Seawater Suite, and the High Performance Compute Cluster. Additional information can be found at www.bigelow.org/services/.