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Saturday 10 November 2012. The Guardian

Science could harness genetic secrets of newly discovered microbial life – but there are fears of ecosystem damage

Scientists have pinpointed a new treasure trove in our oceans: micro-organisms that contain millions of previously unknown genes and thousands of new families of proteins.

These tiny marine wonders offer a chance to exploit a vast pool of material that could be used to create innovative medicines, industrial solvents, chemical treatments and other processes, scientists say. Researchers have already created new enzymes for treating sewage and chemicals for making soaps from material they have found in ocean organisms.

“The potential for marine biotechnology is almost infinite,” said Curtis Suttle, professor of earth, ocean and atmospheric sciences at the University of British Columbia. “It has become clear that most of the biological and genetic diversity on Earth is – by far – tied up in marine ecosystems, and in particular in their microbial components. By weight, more than 95% of all living organisms found in the oceans are microbial. This is an incredible resource.”

However, the discovery of the ocean’s biological riches, including hundreds of thousands of new sponges, bacteria and viruses, also raises worries about the damage that could ensue from the new science of marine biotechnology.

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