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NUI Galway Marine Scientists Research Cold-water Corals and Sponges off the Irish Continental Shelf

Marine scientists carry out deep-sea research on marine substances to determine if they have anti-cancer properties that can be used for novel drugs to combat human illnesses

6th June 2017

Leading marine scientists, Dr Louise Allcock and Professor Oliver Thomas from NUI Galway, and a team of 10 university researchers and students are currently aboard the Marine Institute’s RV Celtic Explorer on a two week deep-sea expedition researching cold water corals and sponges (two different types of marine organisms) for potential antimicrobial or anti-cancer properties.


Located two-hundred nautical miles South-West off Ireland at the edge of the continental shelf in the Atlantic Ocean, the research is being carried out using the Marine Institute’s remotely operated vehicle ROV Holland I, deployed into areas where the sea floor rapidly drops from around 300 metres down to 3000 metres.

Speaking from the expedition, Dr Olivier Thomas, Professor of Marine Biodiscovery at NUI Galway and coordinator of the National Marine Biodiscovery Laboratory located at the Marine Institute, said: “The researchers and students are seeing for the first time corals and sponges covering an area around the Whittard Canyon, Porcupine Seabight, Gollum Channel and the Belgica Mounds in Irish waters. Chemists involved in biodiscovery research only need small quantities of any organism to develop a new drug, because once a suitable compound is identified, it can be synthesised in the lab, which can then be used in drugs to combat human diseases.”


Dr Louise Allcock from the Ryan Institute at NUI Galway, said: “Using the ROV’s robotic and lighting capabilities, we are able to manoeuvre the Holland I, which is comparable to the size of a mini-van, through the water, and use its arms and clasps, which are like hands, to take small samples of corals, sponges and other specimens from extremely hostile parts of the ocean floor where there is no natural light and tremendous ocean pressure.


By analysing past research relating to sponges and corals we are able to see that some species are better target groups than others in having antimicrobial or anti-cancer properties. Based on this information we are building mathematical models to predict the likelihood of any given species yielding a novel natural product, along with developing species distribution maps of corals and sponges on the deep-sea floor, so that we know the best places to go searching.”

When the research team returns from sea they will work with the national marine biodiscovery lab at the Marine Institute. The NUI Galway scientists will extract the chemical compounds from all of the samples of sponges and corals to determine if they have drug-like characteristics such as anti-cancer or antimicrobial properties that can be used for novel drugs to combat human illnesses.

“These are exciting times to be a marine researcher as marine scientists around the world have discovered more species in the ocean in the last ten years than ever before, with an average of 2000 new discoveries each year. In Ireland we are contributing to building on this wealth of valuable information and sharing the best available science and knowledge to inform decisions affecting the Atlantic Ocean”, said Dr Peter Heffernan, CEO of the Marine Institute.

The ROV Holland I provides high definition continuous video footage of the deep seafloor as it is being used to collect samples, where Dr Allcock noted that, “going back through footage after the expedition enables us to further analyse the location recording of all the corals and sponges. This improves future predictions of where else we might find similar specimens and also allows us to provide data to inform conservation policy so that we make sure that important ‘hotspots’ rich in corals and sponges are preserved.”

This survey was funded by Dr Louise Allcock’s SFI - Marine Institute investigators award and is a five-year project entitled ‘Exploiting and conserving deep-sea genetic resources’, which is being undertaken at NUI Galway, and co-funded by Science Foundation Ireland and the Marine Institute.

The National Marine Biodiscovery Laboratory project brings together six of the country's leading marine researchers from across a range of disciplines, from NUI Galway, University of Limerick and University College Cork to study how marine substances might in future be used to make ingredients for cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and functional foods.

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June 2017 Issue - Vol 30 No.01

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