Inspired by nature: a deep dive with National Marine Science Centre director Kirsten Benkendorff

Published 6 August 2021
Professor Kirsten Benkendorff

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.”

I'd like to acknowledge that I'm on Gumbaynggir nation and acknowledge the significant role the traditional owners play in the management of the land and the sea country. So here we are at Woolgoolga estaury. It's a really important example of an estaurine system that provides a buffer between the land and the sea. In this particular case it's providing a buffer to the Solitary Islands Marine Park which harbours an enormous diversity of both tropical, subtropical and temperate species. And up on the west side, we've actually got a catchment that includes both urban and agricultural development. In particular we have previous banana farms and more recently blueberry and a large number of hothouses. And these contribute potential pollutants into our waterways that include both nutrients and pesticides. Luckily in the lake here we've got something really special. You can't see it because it's under the water but we've got a large reef of leaf oysters. These really big oysters are not typically eaten by humans, but they play really important ecosystem services. Shellfish reefs in general have been recognised globally as providing really important fish habitat and being really important water filters. But these shellfish reefs globally have been decimated with only 85% of them remaining today and in Australia 95% of them are regarded as functionally extinct. As a consequence there's a lot of effort going into shellfish reef restoration. but we don't know much about our leaf oysters. So here our team of Southern Cross University together with the Woolgoolga Lake Community Group and the Department of Primary Industries Fisheries, we're investigating the leaf oyster populations. We're doing baited underwater videos which you can see being deployed from the paddleboats and the kayaks to investigate the diversity of fish that live in these leaf oyster reefs. We're also taking water samples where we look at the nitrogen and bacterial loads in the water to we can see if the leaf oysters are removing these from the water and increasing the health of our estaurine systems. We've been looking at these estauries up and down the coast in a number of places to look at how water quality impacts our leaf oyster population and we're definitely finding that poor water quality is leading to the loss of our reef oysters in particular in the Richmond River where we don't find significant leaf oyster populations anymore. So these are really important indicators of environmental health. We need to protect the whole catchment, we need to look at a catchment management approach where we're controlling pollution at the source and thus protecting our environment and the wonderful organisms that live in here. We need our oyster reefs to ensure that we have healthy estauries and sustainable fisheries into the future.

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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