From cancer cures to potent water filters, marine molluscs – all things snail, slug and octopi – have a lot to offer. Just ask the Director of the National Marine Science Centre, Professor Kirsten Benkendorff.
An interdisciplinary, collaborative researcher with contributions in marine biology and biomedical research, her work spans the molecular level right up to whole ecosystems. “My research focuses on the medicinal properties of marine molluscs and the impacts of anthropogenic stressors – which are stressors resulting from human impact – on shellfish health and seafood quality,” said Professor Benkendorff.
Her current investigations cover the properties of marine mollusc extracts which include anticancer, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agents; the effect of climate change on invertebrates; and the impact of agricultural pesticides on prawns and oysters.
“From a pesticide pollution perspective, prawns are really interesting because they are closely related to insects. We are certainly seeing negative effects of pesticides on their survivorship and function. Although it is hard to pinpoint the reason for declining populations in the natural environment, we know this kills them in the lab.”
Her research also includes investigation of a compound from the sea snail Dicathasis orbita that induces cancer cell apoptosis – that is, killing off cancer cells – both in cell culture and in mice. Read more: Sea snail compound reduces cancer risk.
This compound, a brominated indole, also has anti-inflammatory properties which she and one of her PhD students are investigating for use in respiratory diseases; along with hemocyanin, a compound which promotes anti-viral and anti-bacterial activity.
“My career is also my passion, I’m really lucky to be able to work in that space where I can contribute to new knowledge and educate others. But I’m constantly inspired by nature,” said Professor Benkendorff.
“I wanted to be David Attenborough when I was young, but clearly the research is what engaged me more than anything.”
The key philosophy behind her research is that beyond the intrinsic value of nature, healthy environments provide a range of essential ecosystem services that we all depend on.
“In terms of incentives for conservation, we really can put forward this argument and use the economic value to promote and protect natural environments,” she said.
When it comes to climate change and other environmental issues, Professor Benkendorff said state and federal governments need to act.
“We absolutely need to be switching to renewable, sustainable sources of energy. There is no doubt about that and there are definite problems with pesticide regulation in Australia. For example, there is no reason why waste from horticultural greenhouses needs to run off straight into our local environment and into our creeks. A possible solution is the installation of retention ponds to mitigate the run-off effects. Collect the problem, let it degrade naturally under the sun and if necessary install filters before the run-off gets into our creeks.
“Sometimes the solutions are quite simple but for people to implement them they have to have the incentive. That is why government needs to provide leadership, appropriate regulations and to support research and education.”
Her knowledge of marine biology, aquatic animal health, cell and molecular biology (including cancer research), genetics and natural products chemistry is also directed towards educating the next generation of marine scientists.
In addition to her academic roles – Director of the National Marine Science Centre; lecturer, project supervisor and supervisor of 11 higher degree research students – Professor Benkendorff is also the vice president of the Malacological Society of Australia (the society for the study of molluscs) and editor of two journals, Scientific Reports and Marine Drugs.
Along the way she has been recognised with several awards: Dorothy Hill Award (2011) from the Australian Academy of Science, South Australian Young Tall Poppy Science Award (2008) from the Australian Institute of Policy and Science and the 2000 Young Australian of the Year Award in Science and Technology from the National Australia Day Council.
“As a female in science, you really have to put yourself out there and believe in yourself and be quite strong to get your voice across. I encourage young career scientists to passionately pursue their research interests.
“We need to reflect on what’s important and start living with minimal impact on the environment. We are at a critical point in human history but we have enough education to turn it around. We can effectively use science and technology to help solve some of the problems and improve life into the future,” she said.
The National Marine Science Centre in Coffs Harbour is a teaching and research facility of the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Southern Cross University.
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