Tuesday, November 3, 1998

Marine microbes: ‘Servants
for the 21st century’

By Lori Tighe


The summit of Hawaii's underwater volcano, Loihi, glows red like Mars. The color comes from bacteria thriving off volcanic gases and iron from salt.

Now imagine those same bacteria thriving off air pollutants from an iron smelter, cleaning it up as they eat.

University of Hawaii research professors are dreaming of it, as well as an array of other valuable products from marine microbes, or tiny animals seen only with a microscope.

"Microbes will be our servants for the 21st century," said Alexander Malahoff, chairman of ocean engineering at UH.

With a $12.4 million grant over five years from the National Science Foundation, UH researchers can begin to turn their dreams into new technologies for Hawaii.

"We're on the verge of a revolution equivalent to Silicon Valley," Malahoff said.

Microbes, such as bacteria, have already been used for antibiotics. But marine microbes are vastly unresearched, said Mike Hadfield, director of Kewalo Marine Laboratory at UH.

Hadfield will help cultivate common marine microbes from Pearl Harbor and Honolulu Harbor, and biofilms -- hundreds of different bacteria which form on anything put in the sea.

"The sky is the limit, really, for new products," Hadfield said.

An example of a marine microbe technology already developed is bioremediation. It uses bacteria to break down oil spills. The bacteria literally chews up the oil and detoxifies it, he said.

As we bear down on the 21st century, pollution problems and extraction of the earth for fossil fuels will continue to damage the environment, Malahoff said.

But microbes can be injected into fluid and the ground and "do the mining for you," he said, without the pollution.

Microalgaes from the ocean can be used for feeding fish raised on aquaculture farms, turning white salmon raised in fisheries to orange, making pale egg yolks of chickens fed with white corn more yellow.

They can also be used for human dietary supplements and medicinal uses, such as anticancer drugs.

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