Ocean Biotechnology: A New Source of Economic Growth

17 04 2009

The ongoing global economic crisis triggered by subprime mortgage scandal and financial meltdown in the US has invariably hit every country on earth in the form of a decreasing economic growth, and rising unemployment and poverty. This year the world economic growth will shrink 1 – 2% (World Bank, 2009). Meanwhile, Indonesia’s economy is predicted to grow only between 1.5% to 4.5% in 2009 which is much lower than the government target of 6.5%. To tackle the global economic recession, all nations of the world should join hand in hand to create a quality economic growth that can provide substantial employment opportunities and prosperity, particularly for poor citizens. This can be done by revitalizing existing real sectors, boosting new sources of economic growth, and improving the global financial system. One of the most promising new sources of economic growth is ocean (marine) biotechnology industry. It has been estimated that the potential economic value of marine biotechnology industry is gigantic, four times the size of the current global semiconductor market by 2010 (MOMAF, Korea, 2002).

The oceans covering over 70% of the earth’s surface and 95% of the planet’s living space are a huge reservoir of high-quality food, biomedical compounds, bio-degraders of wastes, renewable energy, biosensors, biocatalysts, biopolymers, and many other industrially important compounds and products. Marine biotechnology, which is defined as “the application of scientific and engineering principles in the processing of materials by marine biological agents to provide goods and services beneficial for human beings”, is the primary tool to tap such a tremendous economic potential of the oceans through its industrial applications including aquaculture, pharmaceutical industry, food and beverages, bio-energy production, paper industry, and agriculture.

Marine biotechnology may significantly increase aquaculture production on a sustainable fashion in two ways. First, it can enhance cultured organisms (e.g. fish, crustaceans, mollusks, and seaweeds) growth rate, procreation proficiency, disease resistance, and ability to endure adverse environmental conditions. The organism’s ability to grow and survive in intensive aquaculture will thus be improved, increasing yields. Second, through biotechnology vaccines can be developed against bacterial and viral diseases that commonly afflict marine biota. Vaccines will therefore protect cultured organisms from disease outbreaks that have periodically resulted in a lower production or even an harvest failure.

As part of their metabolism, many marine biota secrete bioactive compounds that help them survive and that incidentally have properties beneficial to human beings. Various types of bioactive compounds extracted from marine organisms posses antibiotic, anti-tumor, anti-viral, or anti-inflammatory properties. As technological procedures are improved, marine biota producing anti-parasitic, pesticidal, immune-enhancing, growth-promoting, and wound-healing chemicals will certainly be discovered. In the last two decades, all these bioactive compounds have been used in global pharmaceutical, food and beverage, and aquaculture industries generating more than US$ 100 billion annually. Since only less than 1% of potentially useful chemical-producing marine organisms have been screened so far, the room for expansion of these industries is extraordinarily large.

Through marine biotechnology, we can transfer characteristics inherent to marine plants and animals to their terrestrial counterparts. For instance, the anti-freeze gene of winter flounder fishes has been synthesized and inserted into yeasts and terrestrial higher plants which enable agricultural crops to survive sudden-winter freezes in cold or temperate regions. Another example involves the world’s most salt-tolerant plant, a microalgal species inhabiting the Dead Sea where the salt content is 29%. Researchers have been implanting genes that code for salt tolerance in agricultural crops. Success means that farmers can grow rice, maize, soybean, and other crops in soils irrigated by brackish or salt water.

Eventually, marine biotechnology will influence in some ways virtually all of mankind’s productive activities, whether they be agriculture, health services, industry, energy production, or environmental remediation. Marine biotechnology will fuel this exciting new frontier and provide enormous economic potential for future generations to take advantage of the multibillion dollar marine biotechnology industry market of the 21st century. Although the industrialized nations have benefited greatly from this new frontier, the developing nations have as much or more to gain from advances in marine biotechnology.

As the largest maritime and archipelagic country in the world, a 5.8 million km2 of Indonesian seas (three-quarters of its total area) are blessed with the highest marine biodiversity which is the basis for marine biotechnology development. The archipelago is indeed the center of our planet marine biodiversity that harbors more than 4,500 fish species, 20% of the world’s coral reef areas, and over 600 species of hard corals (out of the global total of 800 species). These facts legitimate Indonesia as the center of the world’s coral triangle. Moreover, Indonesia’s coastal zone is flourished with the most extensive and diverse mangrove forests, and seaweed and seagrass beds on earth. At least 30 cetacean species, ranging from blue and sperm whales to orcas and Irrawaddy dolphins, can be found within Indonesian seas. And, six of the world’s seven sea turtle species also live here.

A tremendous economic potential of Indonesia’s marine biotechnology industry may be reflected by just two marine commodities, shrimp and seaweed. Currently, the total coastal land area suitable for shrimp culture is 1.2 million ha; and 200,000 ha of which have been used for shrimp culture with average productivity of 1.5 tons/ha/year. By applying biotechnology, we can easily increase the productivity to 5 tons/ha/year. If we manage to open 500,000 ha of coastal land (40%) for shrimp culture, then 2.5 million tones of shrimp with foreign exchange earning of US$ 10 billion and 3 million employment opportunities per annum can be generated. By far, we have utilized about 50,000 ha of coastal waters for seaweed culture. If we cultivate 1 million ha of our coastal waters for seaweed culture (30% of the total potential), we can produce 16 million tons of dried seaweed with 4 million employment opportunities. And, if we export 10 million tones of it, approximately US$ 5 million of foreign exchange earnings may be obtained annually.

It is therefore strongly believed that if Indonesia focus its economic development on renewable resource-based industries (fisheries and ocean, agriculture, forestry, pharmaceutical industry, food and beverages, bio-energy production, and environmental bioremediation) through biotechnological applications, then not only we will be able to handle adverse impacts of the global economic recession (i.e. massive unemployment and poverty) but also shall be a newly developed nation by 2030.


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