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Actiquim: Exploring the marine ecosystems of the Antarctic

The Antarctic continent is an excellent natural laboratory for scientific research.

The Antarctic continent is an excellent natural laboratory for scientific research.

The experts study the role of natural marine products in Antarctic ecosytems.

The experts study the role of natural marine products in Antarctic ecosytems.

Diving in Antarctic waters is a key point in the research campaign.

Diving in Antarctic waters is a key point in the research campaign.

Marine ecosystems are a natural source of bioactive substances with potential uses in the pharmaceutical sector.

Marine ecosystems are a natural source of bioactive substances with potential uses in the pharmaceutical sector.

The project will identify products of marine origin that could be harnessed for therapeutic purposes.

The project will identify products of marine origin that could be harnessed for therapeutic purposes.

21/11/2011

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The new research campaign Actiquim-II, coordinated by the lecturer Conxita Àvila from the UB’s Department of Animal Biology, will study the role of natural marine products in Antarctic ecosytems and determine their potential for use in pharmacological applications. The study, which is due to begin in December, will broaden the scope of the existing Actiquim project, launched in 2007, which focuses on the chemical ecology of marine invertebrates that inhabit the sea floors of the Antarctic.

As Conxita Àvila, coordinator of the Actiquim project, explains, “Antarctica is a largely unknown continent and allows us to study unique marine ecosystems that are both extremely old and highly stable. The benthic fauna is spectacular and, contrary to what was previously believed, there is a very high level of chemical interaction between the marine organisms in this region, similar to the levels found in tropical ecosystems.”

 
“The aim of Actiquim is to study chemical molecules found in marine invertebrates to determine whether they modulate the relationship between different groups of organisms in the Antarctic ecosystem: in other words, we will look at whether they are toxic to predators, contribute to the competition for space or food, and so on.” The project also encompasses examination of the potential pharmacological uses of these natural products for the treatment of different diseases.
 
From the Weddell Sea to Deception Island
 
The research for the Actiquim project has been carried out during a series of campaigns in the Weddell Sea, on board the oceanographic research vessel Polarstern, and at Deception Island in the South Shetland archipelago, launched from an operating base at the Spanish Antarctic research station Gabriel de Castilla.
 
The team will carry out a wide range of research activities, from standard experimental work in the laboratory to the retrieval of samples from the sea floor in the icy polar waters. “Diving in Antarctic waters requires much stricter safety measures. Before each dive, we check that there is no immediate source of danger in the area around the research site, for example the presence of aggressive animals such as the leopard seal. We also limit each dive to a duration of thirty minutes and a maximum depth of 15 metres,” says Conxita Àvila.
 
The search for new marine-based drugs
 
Marine ecosystems are a natural source of bioactive substances with potential uses in the pharmaceutical sector. Cnidarians, echinoderms, tunicates and other marine invertebrates can synthesize or accumulate biologically active metabolites of particular interest to ecologists and pharmacologists. As such, one of the principal applied research goals of the Actiquim project, in collaboration with PharmaMar and other biotech partners, is to identify products of marine origin that could be harnessed for therapeutic purposes.
 
To date, work in this field has formed the basis of several doctoral theses and scientific articles on the discovery of new species in polar ecosystems. In the specific area of pharmacology, seven molecules found in the species Aplidium cyaneum (a benthic tunicate that inhabits Antarctic ecosystems) have exhibited anti-cancer activity in laboratory tests, leading to the registration of a patent under the ownership of PharmaMar. From a broader perspective, the Actiquim project helps to create a more integrated understanding of the structure and function of marine ecosystems, the management and conservation of the natural environment, and the ecological foundations for the development of new bioactive products with pharmacological and biotech applications.
 
The Actiquim project, funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation, draws on the experience of other experts from the Faculty of Biology, the Faculty of Pharmacy (coordinated by the lecturers Amèlia Gómez and M. Antònia Ribera), Barcelona Science Park, The Spanish Institute of Oceanography in Gijón, the University of Bonn (Germany), the University of Alaska (USA) and the National Research Council, Naples (Italy).
 
 
 
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