Biodiscovery in our deep oceans


“If you look at coastal ecosystems at all levels... there may be new ideas and innovative outcomes.”

Professor Chris Battershill, Bay of Plenty Regional Council Chair in Coastal Science

Could the mysterious depths of the world's deepest oceans hold the key to a cure for cancer?

Deep water organisms that could form the basis for new drugs is one of the most intriguing areas of science. With an experienced Coastal Marine Group led by Professor of Coastal Science Chris Battershill, the University of Waikato is engaged in a growing number of national and international collaborations focused on marine biodiscovery.

The largest – PharmaSea – will explore deep ocean trenches to discover and develop new microbial strains and bioactive compounds from deep-sea organisms to evaluate their potential as new antibiotics or for nutrition and cosmetic applications. This large-scale, four-year project has €9.5 million EU funding and links 24 research and development partners from 14 countries in field work off the coasts of Chile, Peru, China, and New Zealand, and in Arctic and Antarctic waters.

"It's all about joined-up science," says Professor Battershill. "If you look at coastal ecosystems at all levels and look at the resilience of marine organisms and how they protect themselves at a molecular level, there may be new ideas and innovative outcomes."

Currently, one third of all drug leads at the US National Cancer Institute are from the Australasia region and New Zealand is the first Southern Hemisphere country to have generated a successful anti-tumour active chemical from a marine organism, which is now a breast cancer drug. 

The Bay of Plenty itself is also a hotspot for biodiscovery. The nine-year INTERCOAST research collaboration with Germany's Bremen University is focused on multidisciplinary projects investigating marine and environmental change around the Bay's coasts.