Marine scientists Dr Louise Allcock and Prof Oliver Thomas (NUI Galway), and a team of 10 university researchers and students, are researching cold water corals and sponges for potential antimicrobial (anti- cancer) properties.

On board the Marine Institute’s RV Celtic Explorer two-hundred miles southwest of Ireland at the edge of the continental shelf, data is being gathered by the Institute’s remotely operated vessel, ROV Holland 1, at depths of 300m to 3,000m.

NUIG Coral 2017

Deep-sea research of corals and sponges off the Irish Continental Shelf being carried out by NUI Galway Scientists on board the Marine Institute’s RV Celtic Explorer. Photo: Louise Allcock

 “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, remarked Dr Oliver Thomas.

Chemists involved in biodiversity research only need small quantities of any organism to develop a new drug.

“One 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 explained that the ROV’s robotic and lighting capabilities enabled them to take small coral samples, sponges and other specimens from “extremely hostile parts of the ocean floor” of 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 (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.”

Dr Peter Heffernan, Marine Institute chief executive said these were “exciting times” to be a marine researcher who have discovered more species within the last 10 years than ever before, averaging 2,000 per 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.”

The five-year project: ‘Exploiting and conserving deep-sea genetic resources’ is co-funded by Science Foundation Ireland and the Marine Institute.