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Cycle 5 (2015 Deadline)

Enhancing research capacity through a biotechnology-driven investigation of novel Gram-negative bacteria from Indonesian sponges

PI: Ocky Radjasa (, Diponegoro University
U.S. Partner: Phillip Crews, University of California, Santa Cruz
Project dates: December 2016 - March 2020

Project Overview:

5-215 Field Training
The team pauses for a group photo during a field expedition to collect samples in May 2017 (photo courtesy of Dr. Radjasa).
This team’s hypothesis is that an experimental design based on so-called “integrative chemical biology” will provide new insights to better describe life processes in Oceana. This project will leverage an existing Indonesian-U.S. collaboration to make advances in marine microorganism biology, stimulate chemistry discoveries, and engage in outreach to STEM students. The focus will be on using biodiverse Indonesian sponges as a source of new halotolerant Gram-negative bacteria. The project will be based at Diponegoro University (UNDIP, Indonesia) and will be led by Prof. Radjasa, working in cooperation with the natural products lab team of Prof. Crews and leveraging his National Institutes of Health-sponsored project “Merging Marine-Derived Natural Products With Experimental Therapeutics.” The goals are (1) to leverage the aims and expertise of the Crews group to forge a marine sponge-inspired initiative with the Radjasa group at UNDIP; (2) to isolate, characterize, and culture at least 30 strains of Gram-negative bacteria from Indonesian marine sponges; (3) to discover at least 10 novel secondary metabolite scaffolds through the culturing of chemically prolific microorganism strains; (4) to establish a productive research partnership between scientists at UNDIP and UCSC through exchange visits; and (5) to play a part in USAID/Indonesia higher education objectives by providing undergraduate training for at least five UNDIP students using STEM programs in place at UCSC, training on marine biotechnology for four undergraduate students, and curriculum development.

The exploitation of symbiotic bacteria as a source for novel secondary metabolites is considered to be in its infancy; however, the discovery rate of novel active metabolites from marine Gram-negative bacteria could surpass that of their terrestrial counterparts. Sponges represent an unusual niche for novel microbes, as they host hundreds of different bacterial groups and contain diverse symbionts. However, the marine environments in which they are found still remain largely unexplored, understudied, and underexploited. The urgent need for novel substances for the treatment of severe human diseases combined with the recognition that marine organisms provide a rich potential source of such substances support the intensive exploration of new substances from marine organisms. This project will use organisms and methods to overcome existing bottlenecks by using halotolerant Gram-negative bacteria, which can be grown in large scale in the laboratory and which are potent producers of bioactive compounds.

Summary of Recent Activities

PI Dr. Ocky Radjasa and fellow PEER project researchers Dr. Agus Trianto and Dr. Agus Sabdono disseminated their project results at the 48th World Conference on Microbiology, which was held in Moscow, Russia, June 24-25, 2019. Earlier this past quarter, project scientist Dr. Maya Puspita attended the 23rd International Seaweed Symposium (April 28-May 3) at Jeju, South Korea, with partial financial support from the PEER project. She also serving as a moderator during the symposium. Meanwhile, this project continued its emphasis on capacity building and training for students in the second quarter of 2019 by supporting internships for two undergraduate students from Universitas Papua (UNIPA). The students learned techniques for bioprospecting of marine microbial symbionts as part of effort to upgrade their knowledge for a planned joint expedition to Raja Ampat in cooperation with UNIPA. Thanks to supplementary grants received from the Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education (Ristek Dikti), three doctoral students involved in the project have also recently graduated with special distinction (cum laude).

Although unfavorable weather conditions caused the postponement of the third annual joint field sampling campaign on this project, it has been rescheduled for October 2019. Also in the coming months, Dr. Radjasa and his group will host two more student interns, these from Universitas Kristen Artha Wacana (UKAW) in Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara. They will be at UNDIP for three months beginning in July 2019 with full funding support from PEER. The PI also plans two outreach and dissemination events this year. He and his colleagues will convene a Marine Biotechnology workshop at UNDIP and co-host the 5th International Conference on Tropical and Coastal Region Eco Development (ICTCRED) on September 18, 2019, at the Gumaya Tower Hotel, Semarang. A planned late July visit by two UNDIP students to the U.S. partner’s lab at the University of California, Santa Cruz, had to be cancelled at the last minute due to logistical delays, but the visit may be rescheduled for a later date. A no-cost extension is being issued on this project through March 2020 to provide more time for a final field sampling trip, analysis, publication drafting, and dissemination.

A recent article co-authored by the PI, his Indonesian colleagues, and two of his U.S. partners, appeared in the journal Biodiversitas. The article, which is entitled "Exploration culturable bacterial symbionts of sponges from Ternate Islands, Indonesia," is accessible at

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