Clean, green marine microbes with largest School of Life Sciences award



Oil droplets emulsified due to the action of bio-emulsifiers produced by the marine microbial collection. Photo by Dr Tony Gutierrez

A class of compounds which is key to a vast range of global industries could be made cleaner, greener and sustainable thanks to a €4.8m grant and one man’s collection of marine micro-organisms, from seas and oceans around the world.

Marine microorganisms have enormous potential, and this large collection of micro-organisms from around the world has enormous promise for industry
Dr Tony Gutierrez

Surface active agents (SAs), or surfactants and emulsifiers, are a group of chemicals which form an indispensable component in almost every sector of modern industry and has a total global production estimate of over 13 million tonnes per year because of their capacity to mix water-soluble and oily substances together.

The importance of SAs to industry is shown not only by the enormous volumes that are used but by the range and diversity of industrial applications, including healthcare, agriculture, public health, textiles, food and in environmental pollution control.

However, while having a tremendous industrial importance most of them are synthetically manufactured using petrochemicals, which are non-renewable and also have a potentially toxic effect on humans and the environment.

Now the MARISURF project, an international consortium led by a team at Heriot-Watt University, hopes that, with the aid of a €4.8m grant from Horizon 2020, the EU framework programme for research and innovation, their work can satisfy an increasing consumer demand for natural and ‘environmentally-friendly’ ingredients, as well as changing government legislation requiring a shift toward industrial use of renewable and less toxic compounds.

€1.3m of the funding goes directly to the University’s School of Life Sciences (SLS) for their part of the research project, by far the largest EU grant that SLS has ever received. MARISURF is also the largest collaborative EU project ever coordinated by SLS and the first Heriot-Watt co-ordinated project under Horizon 2020.

The foundations for this research development are all down to one amazing collection of microbes from the world’s oceans.

The Heriot-Watt team involves scientists from three different disciplines, Professor Mihalis Panagiotidis, working in Human Health, Dr Tony Gutierrez, working in Marine Microbial Ecology and Biotechnology, and Dr Stephen Euston, working in Food and Nutrition. They will be leading the charge to identify novel SAs from the unique collection of over 700 different strains of marine micro-organisms collected from coastal and open ocean environments by Dr Gutierrez. The team has already demonstrated the potential for some of these organisms in converting natural feed stocks, including waste bio-products, into a range of sustainable and natural chemical compounds which could be used to replace traditional SAs and emulsifiers.

Professor Panagiotidis said, “This new funding has allowed us to build a consortium that brings together academic institutions, industrial companies and end-users, to address all the issues between identifying potential green, sustainable SAs, and actually bringing these products to market.”

“Marine microorganisms have enormous potential, and this large collection of micro-organisms from around the world has enormous promise for providing industry with a source of natural, sustainable and useful chemical compounds ” said Dr Gutierrez.  “We’re not the only ones working in this field using marine micro-organisms, but there have been bottlenecks to getting potential applications turned into practical production.”

To address these bottlenecks, Dr Euston said, “The tremendous value of this project, involving academics, industry and the end-users, will be to break through these bottlenecks and on to practical, sustainable production of some key products which underpin international industry.”

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 635340.