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Cures from the sea
Rich harvest: The oceans are a vast storehouse of medicinal substances

Imagine a career where you could be developing a cure for cancer or a new method for bone replacement. It would be immensely fulfilling, wouldn’t it'” exclaims a visibly enthusiastic Dr Parimal Karmakar, reader, department of life science and biotechnology at Jadavpur University. Marine biotechnology is a field that may offer the scope for both some day.

Marine biotechnology is one of the most exciting and rapidly developing fields of study. In a planet that is three-fourths water, the oceans provide unexplored vistas. India, like other countries with an extended coastline, has just begun to realise the potential of the sea as a resource.

“India is receiving a lot of projects and the scope for doing research in marine biotechnology can only grow,” says Mousumi Chatterjee, a PhD student in marine science at Calcutta University. Mousumi is currently studying heavy metal pollution in marine environments and is keen to conduct research in marine biotechnology.

Marine biotechnology is an allied field of terrestrial biotechnology and the industry that is developing around the subject is research-oriented. “It is a field that is showing promise,” says Dr Karmakar. The principal attraction of the subject is that it brings several fields — like marine biology, chemistry and pharmacology — under a single umbrella. It is multidisciplinary and has to be studied both in the field and in the laboratory.

Students need a bachelors degree in science to take admission into a masters programme in marine biotechnology. “A bachelors degree in the basic sciences like physics, chemistry, mathematics or biology prepares a student well for a masters programme in marine biotechnology,” states Dr Karmakar.

There are several areas of research open to students. Since scientists are more familiar with the moon than with some parts of the sea, there is a lot on offer for those keen on exploring the marine environment. The Bay of Bengal coastline is a good place to study the subject. “The Sunderbans is a veritable paradise for students undertaking research in marine biotechnology,” says Dr T. K. Jana, head of the department of marine sciences at Calcutta University. The university is introducing a special paper on marine biotechnology as part of its masters course in marine science.

One of the most exciting areas of research is extracting bioactive compounds from marine animals to be used as medicine. King crabs, for example, contain lectin in their blood, a substance that could be used to treat several diseases. The aim of a marine biotechnologist would be to find a cost-effective method of raising King Crabs in captivity for a continuous harvest of lectin. Pharmaceutical companies would also be eager to finance such a project.

“The research prospects in marine biotechnology are improving all the time. Students could register for a PhD or — if they are keen to study abroad — appear for GRE and gain entry into one of the better institutions for marine biotechnology in the US,” says Deblina Roy, class topper of the second-year MSc course in marine science at Calcutta University.

Indian organisations like the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, Central Marine Salt Research Institute, Central Marine Fisheries Institute and the National Institute of Ocean Technology are taking marine biotechnology students. Closer home, Jadavpur University, along with the Institute of Chemical Biology and Kalyani University, is working on a project to extract medicinal substances from the sea. “We have been following a unique strategy for the discovery of new antimicrobials from marine actinobacteria of the Sunderbans,” says Dr Joydeep Mukherjee, co-ordinator of the environmental science programme at Jadavpur University.

The salaries in research are also attractive. “A junior research fellow could earn Rs 10,000 per month,” says Abhijit Mitra, senior lecturer in marine sciences at Calcutta University. Students can also enter the teaching profession after qualifying in the NET or the SLET. “A professor can earn as much as Rs 28,000,” says Dr Mitra. According to him, the future of the pharmaceutical industry lies in the sea. “For those inclined to make a career in this field, the time is right to take a plunge,” Dr Mitra adds.

Institutes that offer marine biotechnology courses

Goa University
MSc in marine biotechnology

Annamalai University
MSc in marine biotechnology

National Institute of Ocean Technology
PhD in marine biotechnology

Andhra University
MSc in marine biotechnology

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