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

Marine scientists from NUI Galway returned home recently 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.

A variety of glass sponges. In this area, the living sponges are mostly white, but with a diverse array of shapes and growth forms. Photo: NUI Galway/Marine Institute

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 laboratories. 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. 

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.

A huge ‘gramophone’ sponge in a pristine area at around 1200m depth. To the left is a massive colony of the black coral Leiopathes (top), the stony coral Solenosmilia (middle) and bamboo coral (bottom). The two red laser dots (mid height, slightly right of centre) are 10cm apart. Photo NUI Galway/Marine Institute

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).

Corals! The purple octocoral Clavularia overgrown and the reef forming stony coral Solenosmilia. In the foreground is a delicate bamboo coral with pale pink polyps. The bristly arms belong to an orange brisingid star fish. Photo NUI Galway/Marine Institute

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.”