Nature’s Untapped Treasure Chest – Marine Biodiscovery in Ireland

A view underwater at Na Machairi Co Kerry. Photo Daniel Rodrigues.21 July 2020 - Our ocean is often viewed as nature's untapped treasure chest, with marine plants and organisms providing a natural source of medicines, food additives and cosmetics. Globally, the deep ocean has already given us compounds to treat cancer, inflammation and nerve damage and it's an area of research that is still developing, with great potential for the future.

Over the past 60 years, scientists have conducted random harvesting of marine organisms for the discovery of new natural products with unique properties and diverse types of applications. Marine Biodiscovery refers to the process that spans from the exploration of our oceans to the applications of new biomolecules of marine origin. The unique small molecules or natural products identified from the marine environment play an important ecological role in the chemical defence, communication and reproduction of organisms. Such organisms typically include toxic jellyfish and cone snails, but also sessile animals such as sponges and corals, and their associated microbiota.

Marine Biodiscovery began in Ireland with the Beaufort Marine Biodiscovery Research Project from 2009 to 2015 which aimed to build national research capacity for the discovery of biologically active compounds (bioactives) and materials for applied applications such as novel drugs and materials for use in medical devices. Following a call in 2016, the Marine Institute awarded funding to NUI Galway for the National Marine Biodiscovery Laboratory in Ireland (NMBLI) to develop Irish capacities in this field and become a leading research centre at an international level with Professor Oliver Thomas, NUI Galway as Principal Investigator. The laboratory is managed by Professor Oliver Thomas and Dr Laurence Jennings, and researcher Daniel Rodrigues from NUI Galway.

The NMBLI houses an Irish marine biobank located at the Marine Institute in Oranmore, and is today fully equipped for the Marine Biodiscovery process ranging from field trip collections, taxonomy of all types of marine organisms, chemical and biological analyses. 

With large unexplored marine habitats in Ireland, including the coastline and the deep sea, the first stage of marine biodiscovery research in Ireland involves collecting marine macro-organisms. Researchers then isolate and identify new natural products produced by these discovered marine organisms, using analytical chemistry.

The NMBLI works with national and international researchers and industries to identify novel uses of these natural products for the treatment of diseases, or as bioactives in cosmetic or agriculture food products. To accomplish this interdisciplinary research, the Marine Institute has funded several taxonomists, biologists and chemists.

In the last year, the NMBLI has discovered a number of new natural products with interesting properties. A significant recent discovery was the isolation and identification of a new family of 16 natural products from an Irish marine worm Eupolymnia nebulosa. This abundant and understudied species was collected on intertidal shores in the west coast of Ireland by the Marine Biodiscovery team. These natural products were identified to possess strong antioxidant activity indicating a clear potential for further studies within the pharmaceutical or cosmetic industries.

Another recent discovery was from the first chemical investigation of the subtidal sponge, Spongosorites calcicola. This led to the identification of two new and four known natural products embedded with promising anti-cancer activity. NMBLI research indicates that this bioactivity is potentially selective against lung cancers and carcinomas.

"Our ocean could offer a treasure trove of cures," said Joe Silke, Director of Marine Environment Food and Safety Services at the Marine Institute. "With so much of our marine habitats yet to be explored, and an ever-changing marine environment, there remains a significant number of discoveries to be made in Ireland. Marine organisms will continue to evolve to fight current challenges such as new diseases and climate change. As such, we will endeavour to identify these interesting chemical compounds from marine organisms and provide new products for the agri-food sector, cosmetic products or the pharmaceutical industry. With molecules of marine origin already in the pipeline of some pharmaceutical companies worldwide, Ireland's ocean wealth is still to be uncovered."

The Marine Institute's Oceans of Learning series this week explores Our Ocean: Our Health and Wellbeing with videos, interactive activities and downloadable resources. To view these resources, visit Our Ocean: Our Health and Wellbeing

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For further information, please contact:

Sheila Byrnes e. m. +353 (0)87 225 0871
Sinéad Coyne e. m. +353 (0)87 947 7090