Marine Expedition Collects Samples of Deep-water Organisms for Research into Novel Pharmaceutical Discoveries

Sponges on a rock at around 2000m depth. In the foreground, with a slim, golden stem, is the octocoral Chrysogorgia with its delicate pink polyps.To the left, are several stalked sea lilies. Photo NUI Galway/Marine InstituteMarine scientists from NUI Galway returned home recently (24 August) with yet more stunning footage of Irish deep-sea waters. The expedition, part of a Science Foundation Ireland and Marine Institute funded project to derive novel pharmaceuticals from deep-water organisms, explored waters off the edge of Ireland's continental shelf, approximately 100 kilometres west of Belmullet in County Mayo, with the aim of both exploiting and conserving Ireland's deep-sea genetic resources.

Diving with the deep-water remotely operated vehicle, ROV Holland I, onboard the Marine Institute's RV Celtic Explorer research vessel, the scientists mapped the biodiversity of the sea floor and collected samples of sponges (simple sessile animals that grow upwards from the seafloor) and octocorals (which lack the stony skeleton of tropical reef-building corals), to study their chemistry back in the labs. These organisms produce chemicals as part of their defensive systems, to stop, for example, other sponges and corals growing on top of them, and such chemicals, with their unique structures, can be the source of new drugs.ROV Holland 1

The chemicals extracted by NUI Galway chemists are being tested against a range of disease screens in NUI Galway, University of South Florida (USF) and with collaborators from around the world. The scientists are screening against various types of cancer, Huntington's disease, Parkinson's disease, epilepsy, and various pathogens such as Enterobacter bacteria species.

Professor Louise Allcock from the Ryan Institute at NUI Galway, and Chief scientist and Principal Investigator on the project 'Exploiting and Conserving Deep-sea Genetic Resources' emphasised the importance of Irish deep-sea fauna, saying: "We don't need much material to work out the structure of a new compound, which can then be synthesized in the laboratory, but new diseases emerge every decade, and it's really important to also conserve these unique habitats so that medicine can draw on them in the future. Our species distribution maps will help with that."

Professor Bill Baker, a chemist on the project from USF, said: "Naturally produced chemicals from marine organisms provide real opportunities for drug discovery. And the deep-sea, with its specially adapted fauna, is likely to yield a range of chemistry not known from shallow waters."

The team targeted the area surveyed because previous ROV dives in the area suggested there may be locations that were particularly sponge rich. Dr Joana Xavier, a researcher from CIIMAR (Portugal) and the University of Bergen (Norway), and Scientific Manager of the EU Horizon 2020 project SponGES, also joined the expedition, providing expertise in sponge taxonomy (identification).

Dr Xavier, whose previous experience includes expeditions across the Atlantic, said: "The diversity of sponges, and particularly of glass sponges, whose tissues have a skeleton made of silica, in Irish deep-sea waters is absolutely incredible. Unusually large individuals, likely to be hundreds of years old, were also observed, attesting to the pristine condition of some sites. Other structural habitats such as cold-water coral reefs and gardens, also found during the cruise, help maintain the diversity in these areas."

For more information about the expedition and project contact Professor Louise Allcock, Ryan Institute, NUI Galway at or 091 492322.

For Press contact Gwen O'Sullivan, Press and Information Executive, NUI Galway at or 091 495695.

Notes to Editors

About 'Exploiting and Conserving Deep-sea Genetic Resources' Project

The project is funded by Science Foundation Ireland and the Marine Institute under the Investigators Programme Grant Number SFI/15/1A/3100 and is co-funded under the European Regional Development Fund 2014-2020.

About NUI Galway

The University was established in the heart of Galway City, on the west coast of Ireland, in 1845. Since then it has advanced knowledge teaching and learning, through research and innovation, and community engagement.

Over 18,000 students study at NUI Galway, where 2,600 staff provide the very best in research-led education.

NUI Galway's teaching and research is recognised through its consistent rise in international rankings. The University is placed in the Top 250 of the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings 2016/2017.

With an extensive network of industry, community and academic collaborators around the world, NUI Galway researchers are tackling some of the most pressing issues of our times. Internationally renowned research centres based at NUI Galway include the CÚRAM Centre for Research in Medical Devices, Insight Centre for Data Analytics, Whitaker Institute, Moore Institute, Institute for Lifecourse and Society and the Ryan Institute for Environment, Marine and Energy.

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*The University's official title is National University of Ireland Galway. Please note that the only official abbreviation is NUI Galway.

About Marine Institute

The Marine Institute, based in Oranmore, Galway is Ireland's national agency for marine research, technology, development and innovation. It provides government, public agencies and industry with a range of scientific, advisory and economic development services that inform policy-making, regulation and the sustainable management and growth of Ireland's marine resources.

The Institute undertakes, coordinates and promotes marine research and development, which is essential to achieving a sustainable ocean economy, protecting ecosystems and inspiring a shared understanding of the ocean.

The Marine Institute manages the research vessels RV Celtic Explorer and the ROV Holland I. The RV Celtic Explorer is a low-noise multipurpose research vessel designed for a wide array of offshore and deep sea survey operations. The ROV is a remotely operated vehicle that can dive to depths of 3,000m to capture high resolution footage and samples from the seabed and water column.