New substances discovered in marine fungi from the North Sea

Kiel researchers discover unknown gene cluster of two marine species of fungi as a possible basis for new active substances

The ocean is not only a source of mineral raw materials. The world's oceans also hold a hardly-researched but significant potential for the acquisition of new substances from marine organisms such as fungi, which can be used in medicine, cosmetics or crop protection. In the search for unknown substances from the sea, researchers from Kiel University (CAU) and their international colleagues have analysed the genome of two marine fungi from the Wattenmeer (Wadden Sea) in the North Sea for the first time, the species Calcarisporiumsp. and Pestalotiopsissp.. In doing so, they managed to decode new gene clusters that encode for so-called secondary metabolites - an important basis for the development of new drugs. The results were published today (Thursday 5 July) in the journal Scientific Reports.

Well-known carriers of marine active agents from the ocean are algae, from which food and cosmetics are produced. Less explored, but with an equally large potential, are marine fungi, from which drugs such as the antibiotic penicillin or the immunosuppressant cyclosporine are already manufactured today. Researchers suspect that altogether several million fungal species can be found in the oceans of the world. Many of them are still unexplored. In particular, there is little information about the design and coding capacity of the genomes of marine fungi.

An international research team under the leadership of Professor Frank Kempken, head of the Department of Genetics and Molecular Biology at Kiel University, has now for the first time succeeded in analysing the gene clusters of the two fungi Calcarisporium sp. and Pestalotiopsis sp., using the method of next-generation sequencing. Both species were found in the Wadden Sea area in the North Sea, and grow only under very specific environmental conditions, such as a salt content of 30 grams per litre. The researchers were able to decode gene groups which produce new secondary metabolites - substances which do not play a key role in the growth and survival of the organisms, but are important for the interaction with other living beings, for example for defence.

"Fungi possess several thousand genes, including groups of genes that are not essential for the fungi themselves, but which provide us with genetic information that can form a basis for new medical substances," said Professor Frank Kempken of the Botanical Institute and Botanical Gardens at Kiel University, and leader of the international study. "Both studied species of fungi from the Wadden Sea contain a surprisingly high number of new secondary metabolite genes, and are thus able to make substances which are interesting for marine biotechnology. Most of these genes were previously never found in a fungal genome. We suspect that they contribute to the breaking-down of plant material."

With its investigation, Frank Kempken’s team was not only able to gain further insights into the way of life of the fungi in the Wadden Sea in the North Sea. They were also able to prove that fungal strains can be found in the ocean which are able to produce novel secondary metabolites. Although this was demonstrated, the analysis now requires more follow-up fundamental research. Most of these gene clusters are not active under laboratory conditions, suggesting that the fungal species only activate them under specific environmental conditions. Therefore, the goal of future research is to also activate such gene clusters under laboratory conditions, in order to investigate the previously-unknown secondary metabolites in relation to medically-effective substances. Investigations will include, for example, whether activation is possible by co-cultivation with other marine fungi or bacteria.

To date, the research has been carried out in the framework of the EU project "Marine Fungi". In addition to Kiel University (CAU), a total of eleven institutions from seven countries are investigating the potential of marine fungi as a new source for medical substances, under the leadership of the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel. The research project focuses on the identification and analysis of secondary metabolites which have a cancer-inhibiting effect. In future, the topic will be researched further as part of the Kiel Marine Science (KMS) priority research area at the CAU.

Marine fungi under the microscope
© Linda Paun

Marine fungi such as Pestalotiopsis sp. are studied at Kiel University using highly-specialised genetic techniques, to investigate their suitability for new medical substances.

Original publication:

Kumar, A., Sørensen, J.L., Hansen, F.T., Arvas, M., Syed, M.F., Hassan, L., Benz, J. P., Record, E., Henrissat, B., Pöggeler, S., Kempken, F.: Genome Sequencing and analyses of Two Marine Fungi from the North Sea Unraveled a Plethora of Novel Biosynthetic Gene Clusters. Scientific Reports (2018) 8:10187


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About Kiel Marine Science (KMS)

The Centre for Interdisciplinary Marine Science at Kiel University - Kiel Marine Science (KMS) - forms the umbrella organisation for the interdepartmental marine priority research area at the CAU. KMS coordinates and supports the cross-faculty and interdisciplinary investigation of marine science topics. The university’s priority research area combines the scientific activities of seven faculties and more than 25 groups of researchers from the fields of natural sciences, social sciences, law and economics. The scientists assist in understanding the processes in the ocean in the past, present and future, and contribute to the development of strategies for the sustainable use of the ocean.


Prof. Dr Frank Kempken
Department of Botanical Genetics and Molecular Biology
Botanical Institute and Botanical Gardens
Phone: +49(0)431/880-4274



Friederike Balzereit
Public Relations
Cluster of Excellence "The Future Ocean" / Kiel Marine Science (KMS)
Telefon: +49 (0) 431/880-3032