Welcome to the web site for NOAA Research, NOAA's Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research

skip to content program navigation


Search  this web siteSEARCH  |  SITEMAP

Learn more about these OCEAN and COASTAL RESEARCH areas...

Marine Biotechnology

Broadly defined, marine biotechnology is the use of organisms or their components to provide goods or services. This area holds significant promise in improving human lives.


NOAA Research's investments in biotechnology apply sophisticated biological and molecular methodologies to develop opportunities and solve problems along our coasts and Great Lakes. There is vast potential to discover new compounds with therapeutic and industrial applications. Of equal importance is the need for new tools to monitor ecosystem health and find solutions for difficult environmental problems.


Through its National Sea Grant College Program, NOAA Research has led the Agency's effort in marine biotechnology with such developments as new anti-cancer drugs from marine invertebrates and genetically engineered microbes for use in oil spill cleanup. Sea Grant is making significant advances in a diverse range of other biotechnology research including the development of synthetic antifreeze, water-resistant adhesives, and super-absorbent materials from the proteins in various marine organisms, as well as the genetic engineering of marsh plants to create salt-tolerant crops and molecular research targeted at combating shipworms, corrosion and other problems.

Through its investments in marine biotechnology, NOAA Research is working to:

  • Open new avenues for monitoring health and treating disease
  • Provide innovative techniques to restore and protect aquatic ecosystems
  • Increase the food supply through aquaculture
  • Enhance seafood safety and quality
  • Develop new types and resources of industrial materials and processes
  • Expand knowledge of biological and geochemical processes in the world ocean

Why is Marine Biotechnology Important?

More than 80 percent of the Earth's living organisms are found only in aquatic ecosystems, and we know little about the biochemical characteristics. Our challenge as a nation is to discover the life-enhancing and lifesaving properties these unique organisms possess.

About 40 percent of coastal waters are currently unfit for swimming because of bacteria and pollutants. Our challenge is to develop the biological technologies needed to identify sources of ecological stress to develop strategies to protect and restore coastal resources.

Understanding the dynamics of fish populations and the impact of disease is essential to manage resources. Our challenge is to develop molecular technologies that will enable scientists and managers to differentiate populations and address emerging diseases to protect fishery and ecological resources.

Seafood-borne illness adversely affects public health and coastal economies. Our challenge is to use molecular technology to develop rapid diagnostic assays that ensure the safety of the seafood we eat and the vitality of the seafood industry.

Research Activities

Sea Grant researchers have mined the wealth of natural compounds found in marine organisms and discovered many with potential for use as life-saving drugs. A compound derived from mangrove tunicates holds promise as a potent anti-tumor treatment; those from corals have potent anti-cancer activity. To conserve limited marine resources, researchers are developing ways to synthesize these products.

Toxic polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) originating from tar, wood preservatives, oil and other fossil fuels are found in highly industrialized estuaries. Using DNA-fingerprinting techniques, researchers have isolated marine bacteria that degrade PAHs. The team is working to learn if natural bacteria communities can detoxify PAH-contaminated areas.

The NOAA Research Office of Ocean Exploration has supported several expeditions to search deep-water habitats for marine organisms that may contain bioactive compounds that could be synthesized and manufactured as pharmaceutical products or biomedical research tools. Such compounds could be applied to study and treat human diseases such as cancer, diseases of the immune system, infectious diseases, and others. These expeditions also document the habitat in which the organisms are found, providing critical information on the conditions the organisms require to function and reproduce.

Most recently, the Office of Ocean Exploration teamed with scientists from the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution's Biomedical Marine Research Division to explore deep water, live-bottom habitats along the West Florida Shelf in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico. Specific objectives of this mission included collecting deep-water sponges and other organisms, and isolating and culturing microorganisms that live in association with deep-water invertebrates. The specimens collected are currently being analyzed for compounds that can be used in clinical trials for treating cancer. The samples were collected using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) operated by a partner from the oil and gas industry, Sonsub, Inc. Another industry partner, C&C Technologies, provided tracking for the ROV, which is critical for understanding where the samples were collected.


NOAA Research programs that study Marine Biotechnology

NOAA National Sea Grant College Program
NOAA's Ocean Explorer Program
NOAA's Undersea Research Program



Additional Related Information:

Sea Grant Library offers a wealth of marine biotechnology links, online publications and resources

Science and Technology Education Program (SciTech), a partnership between the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute and the Maryland Sea Grant Extension Program

Delaware Sea Grant Marine Biotechnology

Florida Sea Grant Marine Biotechnology

Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution's Biomedical Marine Research Division