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Research Focus : Drug discovery from Environmental Source: small molecules for new drugs


Drug discovery from Environmental Source: small molecules for new drugs 

1. The research activity is mostly focused on bioprospecting from extreme environments, in particular from Arctic and Antarctic regions. Microorganisms inhabiting these regions represent an untapped reservoir of biodiversity, and their promising biotechnological potential, as source of novel compounds and biocatalysts, is yet to be fully exploited. Specifically, we aim at the identification of novel antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer compounds. This research focus is in the framework of the EU-funded initiative, the FP7-projectPharmaSea and H2020-MSCA-RISE: Ocean Medicine and H2020-MSCA- ETN-ITN: MarPipe.

2. About 70% of annual shellfish production ends up as by-products. Apart from use in chitin/chitosan, this marine biomass is either used to make fertilizer/low value products or is sent to landfill, incinerated or dumped at sea. The ERA-NET BlueShell will address this problem by exploring 3 typical shellfish by-products; shrimp shells, crab shells and defect mussels, for potential (bio)active compounds targeted at the sustainable supply of safe, healthy foods. Research indicates that the abundance of hepatopancreas tissue, the open circulatory system, the filtering nature and the shell structures render crustaceans and bivalves as sources of unique proteins/peptides, unusual fatty acids, pigments and chitin. Applying enzymatic hydrolysis or fermentation will enhance bioactivity through controlled proteolysis, lipolysis and production of low molecular weight compounds. It will facilitate fractionation through lipid-protein disconnections and demineralization/de-proteinisation. Different starter cultures will be tested against a standardized enzymatic hydrolysis as reference. Peptide-, lipid- and chitin-enriched fractions will be explored for (bio)activities relevant to: (i) functional foods development, (ii) food safety applications and (iii) plant health applications. Molecular characterisation of the most active fractions will help identify the specific compounds involved. BlueShell will investigate upscaling feasibility and market potential for the most interesting cases. 

3. In the last decades, bees have been threatened by a number of biotic and abiotic stresses, which strongly affect beehives integrity. Consequently, the beekeeping sector together with ecosystem and agricultural sectors depending on pollinators suffer of missed pollination. Furthermore, the bee gut microbiota undergoes a dysbiosis process following infection. N. ceranae virulence in infected bees escalates when forager bees uptake sub-lethal doses of insecticides such as Neonicotinoids from the polluted agricultural environment surrounding the hive. The European Union banning of antibiotics for therapeutic use in the beekeeping sector approved in 2001 has deprived beekeepers of Fumagillin-B, the sole antibiotic previously available to control Nosema sp.. The need to find alternative treatments to fight bee diseases has led researchers to the study of ecofriendly practices. The H2020- MSCA- RISE- No-Problems will be developed by a consortium formed by 4 research institutions and 3 SMEs of 3 different European countries and a third country (Argentina). Research institutions will do the experimental work on bees aimed at the definition of a strategy based on the use of beneficial bacteria.

4. Other research activities are devoted to collect, analyse and describe the microbial biodiversity coming from cold biotopes. Our studies are also focused on antifreeze enzymes, with high potential for biotechnological applications. These enzymes are isolated from psychrophilic microorganisms from both genomic and metagenomic approaches. Biochemical facilities are also available, and therefore we are able to purify and characterize small antimicrobial peptides. The molecular adaptation to cold of these biocatalysts is also investigated.