By Mwakisha Mwamburi

The stealth of the ocean, the scattering of light, the transient waves and the ever-changing yet familiar hue of the water, always blue. How could I fail to wonder what the mighty ocean is conspiring. As I ponder through “working from home”! As I follow closely the chase for COVID-19 vaccine, it all unfolds before my eyes how the pandemic has drawn renewed attention to the ocean genome, a rich source of anti-viral compounds and even a remarkable hydrothermal vent bacteria that produce enzymes that are key to the development of virus test kits technology as well as associate diagnostic kits.

Marine sponge which has potential application in pharmaceutical industry. Photo by Veronica Ochanda

Marine life is incredibly diverse, comprising a minimum of 2.2 million existing eukaryotic marine species, of which some 91 percent remain undescribed. Life having existed in the ocean three times as long as life has existed on land is characterised by a deep evolutionary history and unique biodiversity. The ocean genome in context, is the genetic material present in all marine biodiversity, including both the physical genes and the information they encode. It is the foundation upon which all marine ecosystems and their functionality rest. It also determines the abundance and resilience of biological resources, including fisheries and aquaculture, which collectively form a pillar of global food security and human well-being. The new analysis of Ocean genome commissioned by the Ocean panel where Kenya is represented by H.E President Uhuru Kenyatta explores the current understanding of genetic diversity within the ocean, the benefits it provides in the context of a changing world and the threats posed to such diversity. It identifies opportunities for improved conservation of the Ocean genome and more sustainable and equitable use of these genetic resources. Despite the contribution of the Ocean genome to human well-being, it is threatened by overexploitation, habitat loss and degradation, pollution, impacts from a changing climate, invasive species, and other pressures, as well as their cumulative effects.  By adopting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14, the international community had committed to protecting at least 10 percent of marine and coastal areas by 2020. However, only 2.5 percent of the ocean is currently considered highly or fully protected, and research suggests that at least 30 percent of representative marine ecosystems need to be fully or highly protected to maintain a healthy, productive and resilient ocean. Efforts should also be made to conserve the genetic diversity outside of marine protected areas (MPAs) through effective management that ensures the sustainable use of resources; prevention of habitat degradation; and the protection of rare, threatened and endangered species, while also respecting the rights of local fishing communities.

Advances in nucleic acids sequencing technologies and bioinformatics have enabled a better understanding of the Ocean genome, which in turn is informing exploration. These new insights are supporting advancements in conservation planning, management and the designation of MPAs, as well as commercial biotechnology applications as diverse as anticancer treatments, cosmetics and industrial enzymes. At the same time, the environmental, social and ethical risks arising from using existing and new biotechnologies such as CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) remain under-investigated and poorly known, especially in marine environments. As awareness of the value of the ocean genome grows, so has the complexity of the international and national legal, institutional and ethical contexts that govern it. The complexity in governance of the ocean genome is linked to many factors: its conceptual broadness, a mismatch between ecological and political boundaries in the ocean, the diversity of threats eroding genetic diversity, and the mix of commercial and non-commercial uses of the ocean genome. Some of these gaps are on the agenda of a two-year intergovernmental conference launched in 2018 by a United Nations General Assembly resolution. The aim of the conference was to negotiate a new legally binding international instrument on the conservation and sustainable use of marine Biodiversity in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ).

KMFRI’s Molecular Biology/Biotechnology Scientist Mr Mwamburi prepares for polymerase chain reaction in KMFRI's molecular biology laboratory. Photo by Kennedy Oduor

Despite the significant benefits derived from the ocean genome, efforts to conserve, sustainably use and equitable share of monetary and non-monetary benefits are challenged by a number of issues:

Gaps in scientific understanding: Despite rapid technological progress enabling exploration of marine life at a genetic level, vast gaps in knowledge remain. For instance, most marine species remain undescribed, a large fraction of predicted genes from marine prokaryotes cannot be assigned functions and the functions of some 90 percent of genetic sequences collected from viruses remain unknown.

The fragmented ocean governance landscape: The ocean has been divided into multiple jurisdictional spaces. As such, the current ocean governance landscape is a complex patchwork of diverse institutions and legal regimes. Consequently, issues of conservation and equitable use of the ocean genome are dealt with in a fragmented and incoherent manner. Some of these gaps are on the agenda of the BBNJ negotiations.

Skewed capacity to access and share the benefits of research and use of marine genetic resources: The considerable costs involved in marine bioprospecting research, alongside the advanced technologies and expertise required to conduct such research, have meant that most commercial activities associated with the ocean genome have been undertaken by high-income countries, especially in the deep sea. However, sampling is often conducted in low or middle income countries. The severe financial, technological and capacity limitations have prevented the third world countries from undertaking marine research themselves or access and use the rapidly growing databases of genetic sequence data.

Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) is strategically positioned to explore the Ocean genome to address some of the challenges highlighted.

The Vision 2030 and Blue Economy goals for “sustainable exploitation of aquatic resources” has given adequate attention to marine science capacity building, information exchange, collaborations and raise of new and additional funding to support such initiatives.

KMFRIs’ Natural Product and Post-Harvest Technology (NP&PHT) section headed by Dr. Odote and with the assistance of Mr. Ohowa is relentlessly exploring the ocean biomolecules through bioprospecting and biotechnology. These efforts are supported by a consortium with the aim to facilitate discovery of novel antineoplastic, antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and antioxidants to aid in solving some of the major health issues.

Just to mention but a few scientists, Dr Mkare heads the Aquatic Genomics, Forensics and Bioinformatics section of the institute where he spearheads research on genomic characterisation of fisheries genetic resources using complementary approaches such as DNA barcoding, population genomic structure, parasitology, forensics and metagenomics to provide information useful to help-guide species identifications, tracing the movement of fish and products along the fish value chain, formulation of policies for sustainable exploitations, and mitigation of the notorious Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing activities, with the latter robbing countries billions of shillings annually. Dr Nina an ecologist and biodiversity researcher is pursuing iconic marine organisms like sharks, billfish and rays while Mr Mwamburi has taken up research in ecological function of marine organisms using environmental DNA and metagenomics. These researchers at KMFRI among many others are keen on the Ocean genome and are filling the knowledge and technological gap in understanding molecular aspects of the ocean and providing baseline surveys for future robust research.

“Our selfish acts today, this very minute, are not only affecting the existence of other species but also threatening our own well-being by disrupting the biodiversity and ecological perfection”. Mwakisha Mwamburi. Photo by Nimrod Ishmael

Researchers at KMFRI are constantly seeking collaborations with the neighbouring West Indian Ocean countries to expand the research from a local to regional scale. This encourages capacity building and technological transfer while building networks and scaling up fund acquisition while  solving shared challenges.  KMFRI has established a transparent, interactive processes by which the society, policy makers and scientists become mutually and socially responsive to each other with a view to improve the ethical acceptability, environmental sustainability and societal desirability of the innovation process and its marketable products. Additionally, proper communication tools have been developed to improve linkages among  societal actors.

Mr. Mwakisha Mwamburi is a Molecular Biology/Biotechnology Scientist at Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute