ReelLIFE SCIENCE 2014 Winners Announced!

Special Guest Judges Prof. Stephen Curry, Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin and Paul Clarke choose their winners.

ReelLIFE SCIENCE 2014 Winners. Fifth and Sixth class students from Sooey NS, Co. Sligo on learning they won first prize (left). Julien Torrades, Leaving Certificate student in Summerhill College, Sligo (right).

ReelLIFE SCIENCE 2014 Winners. Fifth and Sixth class students from Sooey NS, Co. Sligo on learning they won first prize (left). Julien Torrades, Leaving Certificate student in Summerhill College, Sligo (right).

After competing against more than 250 science videos from all around the country, huge congratulations goes to the Fifth and Sixth class students of Sooey National School, Co. Sligo, for their winning Primary school video ‘The Secret Life of Honey Bees’, and Leaving Certificate student Julien Torrades from Summerhill College, Sligo who takes first place in the Secondary school competition for his video ‘The History of Medicine‘.

Both schools win €1000 for their science programme, which will be presented to them at the Galway Science and Technology Festival Exhibition on November 23rd. A further €1250 will be awarded to 5 other prizewinning schools for their entries, and all prizewinning and shortlisted videos listed below will be screened for the public at the Festival.

Judge Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin remarked: “I was astounded by the calibre of the videos from both the primary and secondary schools. It is wonderful to see the thought, preparation, fun, and learning that went into all of the videos and it is very encouraging to see students enjoying and communicating science.

The ReelLIFE SCIENCE initiative is supported by NUI Galway; the Science Foundation Ireland Discover programme; the Biochemical Society Scientific Outreach programme; the EU FP-7 funded VISICORT research project; Medical Supply Company; and the NUI Galway School of Natural Sciences outreach programme, Cell EXPLORERS. ReelLIFE SCIENCE is one of 800 events taking place around the country for Science Week (or check out #SciWk2014), which runs from November 9-16.

A massive thank you to all the schools around the country for taking part in this year’s competition and everyone in NUI Galway and beyond who helped make ReelLIFE SCIENCE 2014 such a success! As Co. Sligo schools scooped the main prizes at both primary and secondary level, it’s only fitting we remember the words of W.B. Yeats, who told us (appropriately enough for a Science Communication competition) that we should “Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people.” and declared that “Education is not the filling of the pail, but the lighting of the fire.” 

Keep the science fires lighting everyone!

Primary School Winner – €1000

The Secret Life of Honey Bees’ was produced by Fifth and Sixth class students from Sooey National School, Co. Sligo, with the help of their teacher Thomas Egan. Judge Professor Stephen Curry commented: “Sooey National School’s video had good science content, with a very, very funny script and the kids were clearly having a lot of fun which makes the film hugely appealing.”

Secondary School Winner – €1000

The History of Medicine‘ was made by Leaving Certificate student Julien Torrades of Summerhill College, Sligo, under the supervision of his Art teacher Jonathan Cassidy. The video was described by Prof. Curry as “a good use of stop-motion…with a nice sense of humour…covering an impressive amount of ground in a short space of time”.

Primary School 2nd Place – €300

ChemKids‘ explores the Science Week 2014 theme ‘The Power of Science’ and was made by all the students (from junior infants to 6th class) of Scoil Eoin, Tahilla, Co. Kerry, with the help of their teacher Doireann Healy.

Secondary School 2nd Place – €300

Lise Meitner, the Science Hero that time forgot‘ tells the story of Austrian Physicist Lise Meitner, who many people believe should have shared the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work with Nobel Laureate Otto Hahn on “the discovery of the fission of heavy nuclei.” This video was made by Transition Year students from Rosses Community School, Dungloe, Co. Donegal under the direction of their teacher Michelle Gallagher.

Primary School 3rd Place – €200

All You Need Are Worms’ was submitted by Fourth class students of Rush and Lusk Educate Together National School in Dublin, with the help of their teacher Simon McConkey.

Secondary School 3rd Place – €200

Gravity in a Nutshell’ was made by Transition Year students in Causeway Comprehensive School, Co. Kerry, under the guidance of teacher Jennifer Barry.

 

Publicly Voted Prize – €250

An additional publicly voted prize, sponsored by Medical Supply Company, is awarded to students of St. Michael’s House Special National School in Ballymun, Dublin 9 who, with the help of their teacher Melanie McInerney, made the wonderful video ‘Trees: Properties and Uses‘.

 

Shortlisted Primary School Videos

The Digestive System’ by Sixth class students and their teacher Anthony Brady from St. Patrick’s National School, Newbridge, Co. Kildare.

Bíodh an Fórsa Leat’  ó Rang 4 agus Múinteoir Niav Ní Riain ó Scoil Náisiúnta Iognáid, Gaillimh.

 

Shortlisted Secondary Primary School Videos

Alexander Fleming – Science Hero’ made by Transition Year students under the direction of their teacher Aideen Lynch from St. Marys School for Deaf Girls, Cabra, Dublin 7.

Vision – How We See the World’ produced by Fifth year students with the help of their teacher Hilary Rimbi from St. Andrew’s College, Blackrock, Co. Dublin.

€250 Public Vote Prize, sponsored by Medical Supply Company.

The poll is now closed.

The winning video will be announced soon, so watch this space!

ReelLIFE SCIENCE 2014 received over 250 videos from 24 counties!

ReelLIFE SCIENCE 2014 received over 250 videos from 24 counties!

This year’s ReelLIFE SCIENCE competition has had a tremendous response from students and teachers all around the country, with over 250 videos received from 24 counties. We’ve been hugely impressed with the amount of work that has so evidently been put into the videos, but also the scientific knowledge of the students and their ability to communicate what were often challenging topics.

Since the competition closed on September 17th, a team of 42 NUI Galway science students and staff, from undergrads to professors, have had the unenviable task of selecting a shortlist of the best five videos at primary and secondary level, to send to our special guest judges Prof. Stephen Curry, Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin and Paul Clarke, for them to select the best three minute videos to share the €3000 prize fund. These prizewinners will be announced on November 12th, during Science Week, so keep an eye out on our website, Facebook and Twitter accounts for the big announcement!

MSCIn the meantime, the good people at Medical Supply Company (MSC) have given us a €250 prize to be awarded to the one of the five videos below, as voted by the public. We were really impressed by the overall standard of this year’s entries, and while the videos you see here didn’t quite make the shortlist, we really liked them and are delighted to be able to give them a chance to win €250 for their schools’ science programmes.

So, make sure you check out the five videos below and cast your vote at the bottom of the page. You can vote once a day, up to 11 AM Monday November 10th. The winning video will also be announced on November 12th. Make sure you spread the word to family and friends to get them to cast their vote too!

 

Science Ninjas

Crecora National School, Crecora, Co. Limerick

Why is the sun red at sunset?

Schull Community College, Scholl, Co. Cork

Express Your Cells

Scoil Chaitríona, Glasnevin, Dublin 9

Trees: Properties and Uses

St Michaels House Special National School, Ballymun, Dublin 9

Síolta ag Ginidiu

Scoil Mhuire, Rosmuc, Co na Gaillimhe

Exploring the Cell, by Dr. Danielle Hamilton

Next in our weekly series of articles, Dr. Danielle Hamilton, a Research Scientist with the Centre for Chromosome Biology, writes about her work “Exploring the Cell” and how understanding how a cell repairs damage to its DNA may lead to the prevention and treatment of cancer.

 

Diagram of the internal structures of the cell. (Image credit: https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/science-behind/genetics-overview/)

Diagram of the internal structures of the cell. (Image credit: https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/science-behind/genetics-overview/)

Every living creature is made up of one or more cells, and humans are no exception. These microscopic structures are the building blocks of our bodies and each is programmed to perform a specific function. Cells of the same type are often found clustered together and communicate with each other to form the tissues and organs that make up a functioning organism.

Microscope image of a human cell showing the cytoplasm in red and the nucleus in blue. (Image credit: Danielle Hamilton)

Microscope image of a human cell showing the cytoplasm in red and the nucleus in blue. (Image credit: Danielle Hamilton)

Cells are composed of a liquid known as the cytoplasm enclosed within an outer layer called the plasma membrane. Important structures known as organelles are found within the cytoplasm, and these include the mitochondria (small organelles that produce energy for our cells), ribosomes (responsible for decoding our DNA to produce proteins), and the nucleus (the organelle that contains our DNA).

DNA is compacted into larger structures called chromosomes. This compaction is essential, as each cell contains approximately 2 metres of DNA! Image credit: https://sites.google.com/site/genomicssok/home

DNA is compacted into larger structures called chromosomes. This compaction is essential, as each cell contains approximately 2 metres of DNA! (Image credit: https://sites.google.com/site/genomicssok/home)

Our research at the Centre for Chromosome Biology in NUI Galway focuses on the DNA within the nucleus. DNA is compacted into structures known as chromosomes, of which each of our cells contains 23 pairs. DNA is similar to a computer code and contains all of the information our cells require to carry out their functions. This code is composed of different combinations or ‘sequences’ of the nucleotides, Adenine (A), Thymine (T), Cytosine (C) and Guanine (G) and can be decoded by a tiny organelle called the ribosome, to produce amino acids, which are the basic units of proteins.

Genes are regions of the genetic code that encode specific proteins and are inherited from our parents. Some genes’ sequences can vary from person to person without any damaging consequences; for example, differences in hair colour arise from variations in the gene encoding the protein melanin. However, some genes are so important to our cells that any changes to their code will result in cell death. For example, an accidental change to a gene that controls cell metabolism can prevent the cell from producing enough energy, eventually leading to its death.

Microscopic images of cell division. Chromosomes are aligned and separated during cell division. In these images, the chromosomes are stained blue and the mitotic spindle, which separates the DNA into each of the new cells, is stained red. In the cell on the left, the chromosomes have begun to align along the centre of the cell in preparation for cell division. The cell on the right has begun to separate its replicated chromosomes into two new cells. (Image credit: Danielle Hamilton)

Microscopic images of cell division. Chromosomes are aligned and separated during cell division. In these images, the chromosomes are stained blue and the mitotic spindle, which separates the DNA into each of the new cells, is stained red. In the cell on the left, the chromosomes have begun to align along the centre of the cell in preparation for cell division. The cell on the right has begun to separate its replicated chromosomes into two new cells. (Image credit: Danielle Hamilton)

I work in the Genome Stability Laboratory, where we study the genes responsible for repairing and protecting our DNA. Mistakes can be introduced into the genetic code accidentally during normal DNA replication or during cell division.

Above is a short time-lapse movie showing cell division filmed by Dr. Emma Harte, Research Scientist, Centre for Chromosome Biology, NUI Galway. The panel on the left shows the DNA inside the cells, while the panel on the right shows the outer membrane surrounding the cell.

External sources such as cigarette smoke, UV radiation from the sun and Ionising Radiation from atomic bombs can also cause damage to our DNA. Fortunately, a process known as the DNA Damage Response is triggered in such a situation and this allows our cells to stop dividing and focus on repairing the damaged DNA. This is particularly important in the prevention of cancer, a disease arising from the accumulation of DNA mutations.

This cell has been treated with ionising radiation to induce DNA damage. Spots where the damage is being repaired can be seen in white and the nucleus is stained blue. (Image credig: Danielle Hamilton)

This cell has been treated with ionising radiation to induce DNA damage. Spots where the damage is being repaired can be seen in white and the nucleus is stained blue. (Image credit: Danielle Hamilton)

If the DNA damage response is defective, this allows DNA mutations to go undetected and uncorrected, resulting in unusual and unpredictable cells. Not all mutations cause cell death, for example, many cancer cells have mutations in genes regulating cell division that allow them to grow faster. This makes it much easier for them to outgrow their neighbouring cells and form tumours.

My work focuses on uncovering new genes required for the repair of genetic mutations. To do this I use genetic engineering to silence specific genes in human and mouse cells and examine how the cells respond to DNA damage. Discovering new genes required for DNA repair will hopefully lead to a better understanding of cancer development and help us to find new targets for cancer therapy.

 

If you’d like to find out more about becoming a researcher in the Centre for Chromosome Biology, check out their Recruitment page or if you’re interested in studying Biochemistry in NUI Galway, check out the videos below:

Medicines, by Dr. Enda O’Connell

In the ninth of our weekly series of articles, I have taken off my ReelLIFE SCIENCE hat and put on my Scientist hat.  Or labcoat, gloves and goggles, to be more precise…  As a Senior Technical Officer in NUI Galway, I support a range of research projects across the campus, from Cancer Biology and Stem Cell Research to Chemistry and Biomaterials.  In this article, I write about ‘Medicines’ and how researchers at NUI Galway are looking for new uses for old drugs.

The History of Medicines

Shennong3

Chinese Emperor Shennong tasting plants to test their qualities on himself (image from Wikipedia)

The word ‘medicine’ originally comes from the Latin phrase ‘ars medicina’, which translates as the ‘art of healing’, while the Oxford English Dictionary defines medicine (n) as ‘a substance or preparation used in the treatment of illness; a drug’. The earliest medicines were plant extracts, animal parts and minerals, and their use in healing rituals overseen by medicine men and shamans, often involved much more art than science.

While many of the ‘cures’ recorded in ancient Egyptian texts had little or no effect on the intended ailment, some of the substances used have sound pharmacological reasons behind their effectiveness. Honey, used to treat wounds and burns, is a natural antiseptic, while willow extract, used to treat toothache, contains salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin.  The Chinese Emperor Shennong is said to have personally tasted hundreds of herbs to test their medical (and poisonous) value, and his pharmacopoeia contains 365 medicines derived from animals, minerals and plants, including antimalarials, the herb Ephedra sinica (from which the stimulant ephedrine was eventually isolated) and tea.

Hippocrates - the 'Father of Medicine' (image from Wellcome Images)

Hippocrates – the ‘Father of Medicine’ (image from Wellcome Images)

Hippocrates, the “Father of Medicine”, lived in Greece between 460 and 370 BC, and is credited with applying a more logical, scientific approach to the diagnosis and treatment of various ailments, and writing the Hippocratic Oath requiring medical practitioners to uphold strict ethical standards when caring for patients. It is known that he would have had access to relatively pure forms of medicines such as opium (containing the painkiller morphine), iron sulphate (to treat anaemia) and zinc ore (zinc oxide is antibacterial and protects the skin against sun damage), which were all available in the ancient world.

In the Middle Ages, alchemy’s search for the ‘elixir of life’ gave way to the rational scientific discipline of medicinal chemistry, involving the purification of compounds such as arsenic (used to treat malaria, syphilis, ulcers and more) and mercury (used for skin disorders, syphilis and as a sedative).

Professor Sir Alexander Fleming, discoverer of Penicilling at his laboratory at St Mary's, Paddington, London. (image from Wikipedia)

Professor Alexander Fleming, discoverer of Penicillin, at his laboratory in London. (image from Wikipedia)

The 19th Century brought a further expansion of knowledge in the field, through the isolation of the active ingredients of medicinally beneficial plants, such as quinine (antimalarial), emetine (anti-parasitic and vomit inducer), cocaine (painkiller, stimulant, local anasthetic) and the aforementioned morphine, as well as the foundation of organic chemistry.  The 20th Century brought yet more developments including the discovery of vitamins, insulin, penicillin and various vaccines, chemotherapies and antiviral drugs, and the development of the pharmaceutical industry.

Current Trends in Medicines

Productivity of the Pharmaceutical Industry. The number of new drugs approved by the FDA per year has halved since 1996, while the cost of bringing a new drug to market has increased sixfold in that time (image credit  Akshat Rathi www.theconversation.com)

The number of new drugs approved each year by the FDA has halved since 1996, while the cost of bringing a new drug to market has increased sixfold in that time (image credit Akshat Rathi http://www.theconversation.com)

In all, 10,000 drugs are known to clinical medicine, with only 1,000 protected by patents, and the development of new drugs has declined rapidly in recent years. At the current approval rate it would take 300-400 years for the number of drugs in the world to double.  It is estimated that in 2013, the cost to pharmaceutical companies of bringing a new drug to market was a staggering $1.8 billion (although this may actually be as high as $5 billion), mainly due to the fact that 95% of compounds tested fail due to effectiveness or safety concerns.

It can take up to 15 years to develop a single drug, between: (i) discovering the drug (or often the drug target in the body); (ii) developing its chemical properties for manufacturing, stability and safety; (iii) pre-clinical trials (in vitro or animal models); (iv) clinical trials in human healthy volunteers to assess side effects; and finally (v) clinical trials in sick patients.

The Future of Medicines?

Aspirin_(2247084833)

40,000 tonnes of Aspirin are consumed worldwide each year (Photo by Chaval Brasil from Campinas, SP, Brasil (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

 “The most fruitful basis for the discovery of a new drug is to start with an old drug.”  James Black, Nobel laureate and pharmacologist.

A recent trend has emerged where existing drugs are being ‘repurposed’ to treat other illnesses.  This has the benefit of greatly reducing the cost and time required finding a treatment, as much information about how the drug works, its safety and effectiveness in the body is generally known.  Drug repurposing is not new – many historical compounds such as zinc oxide and arsenic were recognised as having more than one use – but the increase in cost and decrease in productivity has driven the systematic re-examination of existing drugs as well as failed compounds which did not make it to market.

A well known example of repurposing is aspirin (salicylic acid), which has been used since ancient times to reduce pain and fever. In 1971 its mechanism of action was discovered by British pharmacologist John Robert Vane, for which he received the 1982 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.  This led to its antiplatelet (reduces blood clotting) function being described, and its long term, low dose prescription for those at risk of heart disease and strokes.  It is now used in huge quantities worldwide, with an estimated 40,000 tonnes consumed annually.

The Pfizer Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient Plant in Ringaskiddy, Cork where the drug Viagra is manufactured. (image from Pfizer website)

The Pfizer Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient Plant in Ringaskiddy, Cork where the drug Viagra is manufactured. (Image from Pfizer website)

Another often cited example of a drug finding a new lease of life is sildenafil citrate, more commonly known as Viagra.  Originally synthesised in 1989 by Pfizer scientists Andrew Bell, David Brown, and Nicholas Terrett in their search for a treatment for high blood pressure and angina, side effects observed during clinical trials led to it being widely used to treat erectile dysfunction.

An example of a repurposed failed compound (or rather a failed drug which was taken off the market due to catastrophic side effects) is the notorious sedative thalidomide.  Prescribed to pregnant women to alleviate morning sickness, it was withdrawn after an estimated 10,000 babies were born with malformed limbs, 50% of whom did not survive.  However, thalidomide is now used for the treatment of leprosy (US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved in 1998) and some cancers, e.g. multiple myeloma (FDA approved in 2006).

The Screening Core at NUI Galway

The NUI Galway Screening Core at Biosciences is a central resource for academic and industrial research groups looking to quickly expand and develop their current discovery research.

The NUI Galway Screening Core at Biosciences is a central resource for academic and industrial research groups looking to quickly expand and develop their current discovery research. The Perkin Elmer Janus system is an integral part of the Core’s infrastructure. (Image copyright NCBES, NUI Galway)

Researchers in NUI Galway are also looking for new ways to kill cancer cells.  While researching his PhD, Dr. David Monaghan, under the supervision of Dr. Howard Fearnhead (Pharmacology and Therapeutics lecturer and Principal Investigator in the Apoptosis Research Centre) focused on identifying existing drugs which may have an effect against drug resistant strains of breast cancer (the cancer cells literally pump out most chemotherapeutic drugs).

In my role managing the NUI Galway Screening Core at Biosciences, I was able to support David’s research by programming a robot we’ve christened ‘Janus’ (see the automated liquid handling workstation in the photo above) to greatly increase the number of drugs he could examine with his assay.  Over two weeks, we screened  the 1,500 FDA approved drugs in the Johns Hopkins Clinical Compound library for their ability to specifically kill these cancer cells. We recently published an article on one of the ‘hit’ compounds, the antiprotozoal drug anisomycin, which we’ve shown induces significant cell death in these drug resistant breast cancer cells.

Other researchers have since been supported by the Screening Core to screen this and other libraries against prostate and other forms of cancer, leading to the identification and characterisation of a number of potential chemotherapeutic drugs.  We also work with immunologists trying to improve healing after surgery, stem cell scientists, biomaterial scientists, chemists, biochemists and biomedical engineers.

To find out more about the NUI Galway Screening Core at Biosciences, visit http://ncbes.eurhost.net/screening-core-facility.aspx 

The Power of Science, by Dr. Oliver Carroll

In the eighth of our weekly series of articles by NUI Galway researchers, Dr. Oliver Carroll, Research Technical Officer with the Network of Excellence for Functional Biomaterials, writes about the power of tissue engineering to help the body to repair injured or degenerated tissue.

nfb

Various scaffolds used to promote cell growth and tissue repair: Osteoblast cultured on calcium phosphate scaffold. Collagen sponge for bone regeneration. Collagen sponge for wound healing. Nerve cells cultured on non-aligned collagen scaffold. Aligned electrospun nanofibres (Images courtesy NFB http://www.nfb.ie/research)

Cell regeneration therapy is a developing technology to meet the increasing demand to treat injured or degenerated tissue. Organ transplants are the ideal treatment for many patients with tissue damage, but the demand of organs surpasses available organs for transplantation. There are several types of cell-based regenerative therapies currently being applied, including injection of isolated cells, scaffold engineering, and cell sheet tissue engineering.

Injecting cells to treat injured or degenerated tissues can be used to create tissue-specific extracellular matrix (ECM), i.e. the collection of extracellular molecules secreted by cells that provides structural and biochemical support to the surrounding cells. However, isolated cell injection has a low cell survival rate once transplanted into a host, which reduces their therapeutic benefits. Scaffolds made from various materials (e.g collagen, titanium or a synthetic polymer such as polylactic acid) have been used to help control the retention and distribution of transplanted cells, but can have damaging affects in sensitive organs.

Scaffold-free tissue engineering techniques such as cell sheet production have been developed, whereby an intact layer of cells is grown for eventual implantation. A variety of cell types may be used to produce a suitable cell sheet, depending on which type of tissue is damaged.

How to prepare a cell sheet

Cell sheets have been grown at 370C, a physiological temperature, and the developed cell-sheet can be detached from petri dished by lowering temperature to 200 C (author's own image)

Cell sheets have been grown at 37˚C, a physiological temperature, and the developed cell-sheet can be detached from petri dished by lowering temperature to 20˚C (Images courtesy of Abhigyan Satyam, NUI Galway)

Cell sheets are generally engineered by growing the desired cells on a thermo-responsive polymer surface. Cells proliferate on this polymer surface, creating cell-cell junctions from multi-protein complexes, which hold the sheet together. Cell sheets are typically cultured at 37˚C, which is ideal for adhesion to the polymer surface. Once the cells have proliferated sufficiently, the temperature is lowered to 20˚C, producing a water layer between the cell sheet and the polymer, allowing the intact cell sheet to dissociate from the polymer without damage.

The sheet maintains its ECM when detached from the culture surface, which is beneficial for cell adhesion to the host. Cell sheets are approximately half a millimetre in width and can be layered by placing the sheets on top of one another in order to produce a more cell-dense, three dimensional structure. The detached sheet can then be implanted into a patient and help regenerate the damaged tissue.

Faster production of engineered tissues

flask

Macromolecular crowding: diagram of inert macromolecules added to tissue culture flask emulating the dense in vivo extracellular space

Despite the promising outcomes for various tissue types, considerable time (up to 196 days) is required for the cells to create ECM once they are transplanted, and this often results in loss of cell function. Macromolecular crowding (MMC) for tissue engineering is an approach proposed by researchers at the Network of Excellence for Functional Biomaterials (NFB) at NUI Galway, as a means to engineer tissues faster for transplantation.

Abhigyan Satyam from the research team led by Principal Investigator Dr. Dimitrios Zeugolis is investigating MMC to increase cellular activities, thereby creating ECM-rich tissue equivalents faster. Cells in the body (in vivo) are in a naturally crowded space causing rapid collagen synthesis. However, when cells are placed in a less dense population area, such as culture conditions in a lab (in vitro), collagen production is much slower. Dr Zeugolis’s team are adding inert polydispersed macromolecules to their growing cell populations, with the goal of increasing the density of the growth area, which will, in turn, increase ECM production.

Applications of cell sheets

Applications of cell sheets (image credit: Tokyo Women's Medical University http://twins.twmu.ac.jp/first/en/technology_base.html)

Applications of cell sheets (image credit: Tokyo Women’s Medical University http://twins.twmu.ac.jp/first/en/technology_base.html)

Two of the most prominent areas of research where cell sheets have been used are in corneal reconstruction and cardiac tissue regeneration. Clinical trials prove that this technology can produce long term benefits for patients with a corneal condition known as Limbal stem-cell deficiency, where normal corneal regeneration does not occur. Furthermore, when cardiomyocyte (heart muscle) cell sheets are implanted into a host, they are able to mimic the activity of the host’s own cells, assisting in the cardiac function. Long term goals will see cell sheets being used in the construction of organ-like structures.

Pramod Kumar, a PhD student at NUI Galway, is researching the use of cell sheet technology to develop ECM-rich corneal stromal tissue, which is the most important factor in corneal engineering. He hopes to produce stromal cell sheets quickly by employing macromolecular crowding. He has previously found that cell sheet technology combined with macromolecular crowding helps in the protection and deposition of tissue-specific ECM secreted from the corneal fibroblast. He says “we can develop the corneal stromal tissue like structure in the form of ECM rich corneal fibroblast cell sheets within 4-6 days of culture”. Due to the ECM rich nature, the developed cell sheet will be used to make a full thickness cornea in combination with other corneal cells such as epithelium and endothelium.

Diana Gaspar, a PhD student at NUI Galway, is using cell sheet technology to grow sheets of cells that will be used for tendon regeneration. Tendon injuries affect around 33 million people annually worldwide and the currently available therapies do not completely restore functionality. Diana hopes to provide sheets which can be given to patients to repair tendon injuries by regenerating the damaged tissue without using foreign materials. She has already developed sheets of tendon cells and is currently investigating the use of more easily obtainable, alternative cell sources, such as skin.

Dr Sarah Gundy, Professor Abhay Pandit and An Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the official opening of the €30 million NUI Galway Biosciences Building which hosts the NFB

Dr Sarah Gundy, Professor Abhay Pandit and An Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the official opening of the €30 million NUI Galway Biosciences Building which hosts the NFB

To find out more about the research being carried out at the NFB, visit http://www.nfb.ie/research

The theme of this year’s Science Week, coordinated by SFI Discover, is ‘The Power of Science‘. Check out http://www.science.ie/ to find out what Science Week events are happening in your area between November 9-16, or why not organise your own!

Science in the Garden by Dr. Naomi Lavelle

This week, in the seventh of our series of articles, we have a real treat in store for our readers. The one and only Dr. How (aka Dr. Naomi Lavelle) has written a very special article for us about Science in the Garden, and has enlisted the help of two very capable junior scientists, Culann (aged 8) and Rohan (aged 4), who you will meet in the videos below!

The Hot, Dry Biome, Eden Project - geograph.org.uk - 219410 by Pam Brophy

The Hot, Dry Biome, Eden Project, Cornwall, UK (Licenced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons)

I watched the ReelLIFE SCIENCE school video competition with great interest last year. What a wonderful way to get children excited and involved in Science. I was delighted to be asked to write an article this year in celebration of the launch of the 2014 competition. I think the topic of Science in the Garden is a great way to open children’s minds up to the science around them… literally right outside their door!

The topic is a broad one and I look forward to seeing how the different schools will interpret it. I myself was stumped for a while, just wondering what to write about. Not due to any lack of possibilities, but rather, because of the wealth of different options and angles this could take.

I decided to seek the help of a panel of experts (that was interesting but not very helpful!)

Ditching the advice of the experts I eventually chose the topic myself.

SOIL!

It is the one common denominator in every garden and certainly provides us with a wealth of science to investigate and explore.

What is soil?

Soil makes up the outermost part of the Earth’s surface. It is made up of rock material of various sizes.

How is soil made?

Many factors influence how soil is made, from what type of material the soil is made from (called the parent material) to factors such as the weather, the topography of the land, what living organisms are around and…. time!

Soil is made when the parent material (rock) is broken down forming fine powder, sand or small rocks. Meteorological factors such as wind, rain and snow can break rock down into smaller components. The size and shape of the rock, how exposed it is to the elements and the type of land around all influence how long it takes for the soil to form.

Did you know… it can take up to 1,000 years for just one inch of soil to form?

Why is soil so important?

Soil inhabitants (L-R: Ivy seedling, Millipede, Mole. Licenced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons)

Soil inhabitants (L-R: Ivy seedling, Millipede, Mole. Licenced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons)

Soil acts as an anchor for plants to grow in and it also provides the plants with essential water and nutrients. Soil is also a “home” for billions of other living organisms too… some can be very small like bacteria, fungi and algae and some can be very large like insects and even mammals.

Did you know… in a tablespoon of good soil there is as many as 50 billion bacteria?

Soil is also a wonderful water filter. As water passes through soil impurities are removed. The soil is very important in the cycling of nutrients- especially carbon and nitrogen. Many of the inhabitants of soil help to break down dead plants and animals so that all the nutrients contained within them are returned to the soil. So really soil is like a huge recycling plant!

There is one soil inhabitant in particular that has gained a name for itself as a superhero of recycling. It is sometimes referred to as “nature’s plough”… It is the earthworm.

Did you know… there are approximately 3000 species of earthworm in the world?

Here is a great experiment you can do right in your back garden. It allows you see just how good earthworms are at “ploughing” up the soil.

Make your own wormery!

Notice how we prepared the wormery with consecutive layers of soil and sand. We wanted to see how the action of the worms would affect these layers. If you try this experiment yourself, remember to put the wormery in a safe place and check on it every day- you need to be sure that the soil remains moist, adding more water if necessary.

After a number of days you should notice the different layers getting mixed together and the leaves at the top disappearing. Eventually all the sand gets mixed into the soil and the leaves get “chewed up” by the earthworms and their nutrient content gets distributed back into the soil. A great example of their “ploughing” abilities.

Remember to return the worms safely back into the garden once you have finished!

As you can see we had great fun making this video, as we are sure you will too. We can’t wait to see how “Science in the Garden” inspires you!

Dr. Naomi Lavelle is a mum to three junior scientists who are always asking “how”, “why” and “what if”.  She blogs at Science Wows where she aims to answer all their questions, one blog post at a time.

She can also be found on Facebook and as @sciencewows on Twitter.

Exploring the Cell, by Dr. Jessica Hayes

In ‘Exploring the Cell‘, the sixth in our weekly series of articles by NUI Galway researchers, Dr. Jessica Hayes, Research Fellow within the Orthobiologics group in the Regenerative Medicine Institute (REMEDI), takes us on a journey inside the cell and tells us how stem cells are being used in medicine to encourage the body to repair itself.

Cells – the building blocks of the human body. Here we demonstrate how molecules form cells. Groups of cells in turn form tissue which combines with different tissues to form an organ such as the heart, stomach, brain etc. Several organs that function together form an organ system i.e. cardiovascular, respiratory, reproductive systems etc. (Image source: http://www.studyblue.com/notes/note/n/introduction-to-the-human-body-chapter-1/deck/282266)

Figure 1: Cells – the building blocks of the human body. Here we demonstrate how molecules form cells. Groups of cells in turn form tissue which combines with different tissues to form an organ such as the heart, stomach, brain etc. Several organs that function together form an organ system i.e. cardiovascular, respiratory, reproductive systems etc. (Image source: http://www.studyblue.com/notes/note/n/introduction-to-the-human-body-chapter-1/deck/282266)

The Latin phrase ‘Omnis cellula e cellula’ or, all cells come from cells, was made popular by the German pathologist Dr Rudolph Virchow, and it is this concept that forms the basis of regenerative medicine. But what are cells and why are they so important?

Cells are the building blocks of our body. They contribute to the formation of tissues such as skin and muscle, and different tissues form organs such as the heart, liver and brain. In turn, a collection of organs form systems such as the respiratory, reproductive, cardiovascular and digestive systems. Finally, these organ systems form the basis of human form (Figure 1).

In basic terms, there exists two types of cells; eukaryotic (‘true nucleus’) and prokaryotic (‘before nucleus’). While there are several characteristics that define these cells, the simplest classification is that eukaryotic cells contain organelles (see below) and a membrane bound nucleus while prokaryotic cells lack a membrane bound nucleus, and organelles are generally absent. Examples of eukaryotic cells include animal and plant cells while bacteria are one of the most commonly known prokaryotic cells.

Inside the Cell

Figure 2:  The differing face of cells. Here we show how cells adapt their morphology (shape) and structure depending on function within the tissue they reside. (A) Nerve cell (http://sciencephotolibrary.tumblr.com/page/38) (B) Osteoclast cell  (http://www.pathologyoutlines.com/topic/bonemarrowosteoclasts), (C) Blood cells, authors own image.

Figure 2: The differing face of cells. Here we show how cells adapt their morphology (shape) and structure depending on function within the tissue they reside. (A) Nerve cell (http://sciencephotolibrary.tumblr.com/page/38) (B) Osteoclast cell (http://www.pathologyoutlines.com/topic/bonemarrowosteoclasts.html), (C) Blood cells (author’s own image).

Cells themselves take on different morphologies (shape) depending on the tissue in which they reside. This allows them to adapt specifically for their function within that tissue. For instance, nerve cells or neurons have numerous cellular processes known as dendrites extending out from the cell body (Figure 2 (A)). This adaption to their morphology allows for rapid and frequent communication to be relayed between cells of the central nervous system, which allows us to react to stimuli in an appropriate manner. In contrast, osteoclasts are responsible for removal of mineral from bone. When compared with neurons, osteoclasts are large multi-nucleated cells (several nuclei) that have what is described as a ‘ruffled border’ (Figure 2 (B)). It is this characteristic that allows osteoclasts to attach and digest bone within a specific region.

Erythrocytes (red blood cells) are ideally shaped for their function of transporting oxygen throughout the body. In Figure 2 (C), the characteristic round shape of red blood cells can be seen. However, on side view these cells are biconcave (become thinner towards the middle section). This adaption in shape allows for greater efficiency to be achieved in oxygen diffusion. Furthermore, red blood cells have a flexible membrane which allows them to contort to pass through blood vessels and capillaries which may be smaller than themselves.

Figure 3: Eukaryotic cell organelles. (Photo source: http://health-pictures.com/cell/eukaryotic-cell.htm#.VBAL2_ldW0I)

Figure 3: Eukaryotic cell organelles. (Photo source:
http://health-pictures.com/cell/eukaryotic-cell.htm#.VBAL2_ldW0I)

Despite cells taking on different morphologies, a basic overview of cell structure can be described.

Think of your body as a whole. A cell is not much different really.

We have a skeleton, made up primarily of our bones, to provide structure to our body and to allow movement through muscles, ligaments and tendons.  Cells have a cytoskeleton made up of filaments that work in a similar way to provide structure and to allow movement, or migration. Similar to the organs within our bodies, cells have organelles, which perform specific functions within the cell. The most common organelles of eukaryotic cells include nucleus, mitochondria, ribosomes, plasma membrane, Golgi apparatus, cytoskeleton, centriole, cytoplasm and endoplasmic reticulum (Figure 3).  Each of these organelles has a specific function that is vital for cell survival. For instance, mitochondria generate a molecule known as Adenosine Triphosphate or ATP, which provides the cell with energy to function.

The importance of these microscopic entities should never be overlooked, as diseases such as cystic fibrosis, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson disease, diabetes and Emery-Dreifuss muscular dystrophy, to name a few, have all been linked to organelle dysfunction.

Cells in Medicine

Figure 4. Microscopy image of bone marrow-derived human mesenchymal stem cells growing on tissue culture plastic.  (Image courtesy of Seán Gaynard MSc. REMEDI)

Figure 4. Microscopy image of bone marrow-derived human mesenchymal stem cells growing on tissue culture plastic. (Image courtesy of Seán Gaynard MSc. REMEDI)

Regenerative medicine is an innovative field of research that functions to alleviate several debilitating and life-threatening diseases, through therapies that permit the body to repair, restore and regenerate damaged or diseased cells, tissues or organs. While the field of regenerative medicine is large, the application of stem cells in cell replacement therapies is believed to pave the way for tackling many currently life-altering or incurable diseases.

Mouse embryonic stem cells were first isolated by Evans & Kauffman in 1981, but it was not until late 1998 that two independent groups (led by James Thompson and John Gearhart) successfully derived stem cells from human embryos. The news was met with mixed emotion. On one hand, these cells had the unprecedented opportunity to cure millions of people. On the other hand, others took a cautious approach given the unresolved ethical implications of deriving cells from human embryos. To this day, approaching almost two decades later, the debate on the use of embryonic stem cells is still a hot topic.

An ethically acceptable alternative seemed to be found with adult stem cells which allowed the field to move forward. Adult stem cells are stem cells derived from differentiated tissue i.e. from tissue within a specific organ. Sources include the bone marrow (Figure 4), eye, brain, blood, skeletal muscle, placenta and umbilical cord. While embryonic stem cells have the ability to become many cell types within the body, adult stem cells tend to have a more restricted ability to differentiate into cell types of the tissue of origin. However, in recent years there has been huge expansion in the field of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). This involves the re-programming of differentiated cells such as skin cells (known as fibroblasts) with specific genes that induce these cells to become pluripotent stem cells.

Regenerative Medicine at NUI Galway

Figure 5: The concept behind stem cells therapy. Bone marrow is a source of adult stem cells. To obtain the cells, bone marrow is often harvested from the iliac crest (pelvis). The harvested mix of cells undergoes specialised culture techniques to remove contaminating cells to produce a more purified population of cells. These cells are cultured in vitro (which means “in glass” but on plastic is a more accurate description!). After several weeks of culturing, sufficient numbers of stem cells are produced which can the injected back into the patient to produce a therapeutic effect. At REMEDI we are using adipose (fat) derived stem cells which we inject into the knee joint space of patients suffering with Osteoarthritis.

Figure 5: The concept behind stem cells therapy. Bone marrow is a source of adult stem cells. To obtain the cells, bone marrow is often harvested from the iliac crest (pelvis). The harvested mix of cells undergoes specialised culture techniques to remove contaminating cells to produce a more purified population of cells. These cells are cultured in vitro (which means “in glass” but on plastic is a more accurate description!). After several weeks of culturing, sufficient numbers of stem cells are produced which can the injected back into the patient to produce a therapeutic effect. At REMEDI we are using adipose (fat) derived stem cells which we inject into the knee joint space of patients suffering with Osteoarthritis.

Work at the Regenerative Medicine Institute (REMEDI) encompasses several facets of stem cell research, carried out in state-of-the-art facilities. NUI Galway houses the newly opened Centre for Cell Manufacturing Ireland (CCMI), which is one of less than half a dozen facilities across Europe licensed for the production of stem cells for use in human clinical trials, while REMEDI itself is located in the new Biosciences building, recently opened by An Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD.

REMEDI is involved in several clinical trials that treat diseases such as corneal degeneration, vascular problems associated with diabetes and osteoarthritis (Figure 5). One of the recently completed studies looked at the effect of adipose derived stem cells (stem cells from fat tissue) in the treatment of osteoarthritis (OA). OA is a debilitating disease of the joint that is classed as the 11th highest contributor of global disability. It is an incurable condition and current intervention therapies generally involve pain-relieving measures. Cell therapies have therefore emerged as promising candidates for the treatment of OA. Cells implanted into a patient can either be allogeneic (from a different person) or autologous (from the patient being treated). One of the advantages of mesenchymal stem cell transplantation is that these cells are believed to be immune-privileged. Essentially, this means that donor cells implanted into a patient are not rejected, although understanding this mechanism and its implications are currently being investigated by REMEDI researchers and others.

REMEDI, in addition to some collaborating EU institutes, have previously conducted a study that looked to see if intra-articular injection of autologous adipose derived stem cells (injection of stem cells within the joint space of the knee) could alleviate the pain associated with OA and increase patient mobility. The results from the phase I trial proved highly successful, with patients reporting improved mobility and reduced pain. This therapy is now set to be tested in a phase II human trial that involves almost 200 patients across Europe.

The human body is an extraordinary machine comprising a well-orchestrated interaction of atoms, cells, tissues and organs. We as humans descend essentially from a tiny ball of cells that are ultimately responsible for every single aspect of our form. Regenerative medicine attempts to harness this immense power to tackle diseases that ultimately cells themselves are involved in. ‘All cells come from cells’ – it would seem realistic therefore, that the cure for many diseases lie in the cells themselves!

To find out more about stem cells, check out the EuroStemCell film page, which has short videos (including the one below) and a feature documentary about different aspects of stem cell science, ethics, cell culture and cloning.

The Science of Exercise, by Dr. Nicole Burns

In the fifth of our weekly series of articles by NUI Galway researchers, Dr. Nicole Burns, Lecturer in the Discipline of Physiology, in the School of Medicine, writes about ‘The Science of Exercise’.

Ever notice how, when you walk up three flights of stairs your legs begin to ache and you are a little out of breath? If you put your hand to your chest you may also notice that your heart is beating a little faster than normal.

Were you going “too fast”?

If you slowed down would you still feel your heart beating faster than it was at rest?

If you sped up, would you breathe harder?

A subject seated on a cycle ergometer. A heart rate monitor is worn across the chest under the clothing to measure pulse at rest and during exercise. The facemask is connected to a computer which analyses the expired for percentage oxygen, carbon dioxide and total volume. A blood pressure cuff is worn on the right arm to measure changing blood pressure during exercise. (Photo credit Dr. Nicole Burns)

A subject seated on a cycle ergometer. A heart rate monitor is worn across the chest under the clothing to measure pulse at rest and during exercise. The facemask is connected to a computer which analyses the expired air for percentage oxygen, carbon dioxide and total volume. A blood pressure cuff is worn on the right arm to measure changing blood pressure during exercise. (Photo credit Dr. Nicole Burns)

The discipline of Exercise Physiology is interested in just those types of questions. It explores how body systems work both independently and together. Exercise physiology is the study of how exercise affects body functions. Exercise scientists study how different forms of exercise affect different systems of the body individually or collectively.

For example, they may consider the effects of contracting a single muscle group on force production over a two minute period, or they may go further to explore what happens in the muscle tissue itself, or in the body as a whole. Why does lactic acid build up at the muscle? Why is the subject sweating? Why does blood pressure increase? And what triggers these systemic changes?

Sports Science Perspective

Usain Bolt (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Usain Bolt (photo credit Ghostbusterray and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.)

Exercise physiologists work with athletes to help evaluate if training is effective in creating improvements or declines in performance. Exercise physiologists look at attributes that athletes need in order to make them successful in specific sports. They create training/competition strategies that help athletes reach their full potential and excel. Depending on the sport, an exercise physiologist may focus their research on any number of different body systems such as the muscular-skeletal system (biomechanics), the cardiorespiratory system (fitness, VO2max), the endocrine system (catecholamines), etc. Exercise Physiologists play an important role with all athletes from weight lifters to table tennis players to swimmers and runners.

Clinical Perspective

physiotherapy-senior-band

A patient working with a clinical exercise physiologist (photo credit http://www.therapytoronto.ca)

Clinical exercise physiologists work with people who have or are at risk for known clinical conditions, to help with prevention and recovery. In a research setting, clinical exercise physiologists may work alongside doctors to help discover ways to prevent diseases from occurring in at-risk populations by using different forms of exercise. For example, people known to be at risk of diabetes may be able to avoid progression to the disease by changes in diet and exercise habits. The clinical exercise physiologist can also work with doctors to help alleviate symptoms or stop progression of diseases. People with osteoporosis have been shown have an increase in bone density following a program of light weight training. People who have had a heart attack, and begin a physical activity program, have been shown to be less likely to have a secondary event.

Exercise Physiology at NUI Galway

Polar heart rate monitor and sensor (photo credit Dr. Nicole Burns)

Polar heart rate monitor and sensor (photo credit Dr. Nicole Burns)

In the past few years, NUI Galway 3rd and 4th year physiology students have had a chance to explore different aspects of exercise physiology. Some students have been looking into the effect of sports drink supplementation (e.g. caffeine, Lucozade, and Red Bull) on exercise tolerance. Others have examined the consequences of cigarette smoking on cardiovascular and respiratory efficiency. While still others have attempted to validate different tools used in exercise testing, such as heart rate monitors, McArdle step tests, sit-ups, push-ups, walking and running tasks, and many more. Exercise Physiology is a relatively new offering at NUI Galway, but the extraordinary interest of students to explore this exciting new field is tremendous.

Check out these videos from Physiology Lecturer Dr. Michelle Roche and PhD student Rebecca Henry to find out more information about studying Physiology at NUI Galway.

Vision, by Dr. Kieran Ryan of VISICORT

In the fourth of our weekly series of articles by NUI Galway researchers, Dr. Kieran Ryan, VISICORT Project Manager, writes about ‘Vision‘ and VISICORT’s research into improving corneal transplant outcomes by preventing rejection.

Eyes

Eyes from around the animal kingdom. From L-R: Hoverfly compound eye; Jumping spider anterior eyes; Cat’s eyes with distinctive slit-like iris. (Images from Wikimedia Commons)

Eyes are the organs of vision, detecting light and converting it into electro-chemical impulses in neurons. Eyes come in ten different forms, with the simplest types of ‘eyes’, merely eyespots, detecting whether the immediate surroundings are light or dark (photoreception).

Photoreception is known to have evolved a long time ago in single-celled organisms. The advantage of improved vision in food gathering, escape from predators and even finding a mate, would have driven the evolution of vision to also detect movement, colour and form. Most of the improvements in early eyes are believed to have taken only a few million years to develop. Based on shared genetic sequences, it is now widely accepted that 540 million years ago, a single, common origin for all eyes in higher animals arose. These “proto-eyes” are thought to have developed in predators first, giving them a distinct advantage over their prey and other competing predators.

The Human Eye (XXXX)

The Human Eye (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Eyes can be classified into ‘simple eyes’, with one concave photoreceptive surface, and ‘compound eyes’, where a number of individual lenses are laid out on a convex surface. The majority of animal species possess complex optical systems, which collect light from their environment and convert it into electrical signals for processing into an image by the brain. Although classified as a ‘simple eye’, the human eye is an intricate organ, made up of a number of components, each with their role to play in collecting, focusing, converting and processing light

The cornea is the transparent front part of the eye that covers: (i) the iris – the pigmented part of the eye which gives it its colour, and is so called because in Greek mythology, ‘Iris’ was the goddess of the rainbow; (ii) the pupil – the part of the eye which narrows or widens to control the amount of light entering, and which appears black as the light is absorbed; and (iii) the aqueous humour-filled anterior chamber, through which light passes on the way to the lens.

As well as protecting the front parts of the eye, the cornea focuses incoming light, providing two-thirds of the eye’s optical power. Thus, any damage to the cornea, through trauma, infection, and other diseases, can have devastating effects on an individual’s eyesight, and is the fourth most common cause of blindness, affecting 10 million people worldwide.

Corneal transplantation is the most frequently performed transplant procedure in humans, with over 100,000 procedures each year worldwide. It is often the only treatment available to restore sight to people who have lost vision due to diseases of the cornea.

Successful and rejected corneal transplants (L & R, respectively). (Photo credits: Jesper Hjorndal and Oliver Treacy)

Successful and rejected corneal transplants (L & R, respectively). (Photo credits: Jesper Hjorndal and Oliver Treacy)

However, despite advances in microsurgery and immunosuppressive treatments, the transplanted cornea is rejected in about 30% of patients who undergo transplantation, due to an adverse immune response. Treatment with corticosteroids is currently the most successful way of combating corneal rejection, although it is frequently ineffective in some patients.

Diagram of current corneal transplantation leading to healing or rejection (Image courtesy of VISICORT)

Diagram of current corneal transplantation leading to healing or rejection (Image courtesy of VISICORT)

Researchers at the NUI Galway Regenerative Medicine Institute (REMEDI) have come together with NUI Galway spin-out company Orbsen Therapeutics, and the Centre for Cell Manufacturing Ireland (CCMI), to lead a €6M EU Framework Programme 7-funded project aimed at better understanding the immune responses to corneal transplants. The researchers also aim to improve corneal transplant outcomes using a stem cell therapy to modify the immune response in high risk transplant patients.

visicort_logo-trans

Known as “VISICORT” (Adverse Immune Responses and their Prevention in Corneal Transplantation), the five year project is being jointly coordinated by Professor Matthew Griffin and Dr Thomas Ritter, in partnership with 11 other academic and industry-based partners from France, Germany, Denmark and the UK.

The Galway teams will build on an existing model system, which shows that stem cells can have a positive effect on the immune system during transplantation, leading to an improvement in the overall success of corneal transplantation. The final year of the project will involve a clinical trial, testing the usefulness of stem cells in corneal transplant, using cells manufactured at NUI Galway in the CCMI.

To learn more about this ongoing project, you can watch Dr. Ritter and his team on the RTE’s Six One News (scroll to 16:48) or speaking on RTE’s Morning Ireland radio programme (scroll to 1:27:52).

VISICORT is a supporter of the ReelLIFE SCIENCE schools science competition. 

Our Marine World, by Dr. Louise Allcock

In the third of our weekly series of articles by NUI Galway researchers, Dr. Louise Allcock, Lecturer in Zoology and Ryan Institute Principal Researcher in Functional and Evolutionary Biology, writes about ‘Our Marine World‘ and her work exploring Ireland’s deep sea habitats.

 

The Real Map of Ireland: Image courtesy Marine Institute

The Real Map of Ireland: Image courtesy Marine Institute

You don’t need me to tell you that Ireland is surrounded by sea. But do you know how deep that sea is?

Close around Ireland, on the continental shelf shown in brown on the map above, it’s not very deep – around 200 metres or so. But at the edge of the shelf, the sea floor gets suddenly deeper, dropping to around 3 km deep in the Rockall Trough, and 5 km deep on the Porcupine Abyssal Plain.

The research vessel Challenger off Kerguelen Island in the Southern Indian Ocean during her 5-year deep-sea voyage.  Image courtesy NOAA photo library.

The research vessel Challenger off Kerguelen Island in the Southern Indian Ocean during her 5-year deep-sea voyage (1872-1876). Image courtesy NOAA photo library.

You might be surprised to learn that the deep-sea has been studied for nearly 150 years, and many of the deep-sea animals found in Ireland’s waters were first collected during the Challenger Expedition – a five-year expedition that circumnavigated the globe from 1872 to 1876. The deep-sea is surprisingly easy to sample. The sea floor tends to be flat and soft, and small trawls that work on the continental shelf will collect animals from the abyss: provided you have a long enough cable!

So is there more to learn?

Look closely again at the real map of Ireland. Can you see canyons carving their way from the continental shelf to the deep sea? As any fisherman knows, only the foolhardy would deploy their gear here. The uneven ground will snag and rip your trawl and break your cables. So the secrets of these areas remained unknown for a long time.

ROV Holland I being deployed from the Irish research vessel Celtic Explorer.  The ROV remains attached to the ship by the fibre-optic cable or ‘tether’ at all times.  Note the thrusters for manoeuvrability, the robotic arms for collecting, and the white ‘bioboxes’ at the front for storing samples.

ROV Holland I being deployed from the Irish research vessel Celtic Explorer. The ROV remains attached to the ship by the fibre-optic cable or ‘tether’ at all times. Note the thrusters for manoeuvrability, the robotic arms for collecting, and the white ‘bioboxes’ at the front for storing samples.

But modern technology is revealing the hidden wonders of submarine canyons. Remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) with their high definition cameras can fly up the walls of canyon systems streaming live video up fibre optic cables to the research vessel above.

Map of the Whittard Canyon with seafloor bathymetry colour coded.  Red = continental shelf; dark blue > 3 km depth.

Map of the Whittard Canyon with seafloor bathymetry colour coded. Red = continental shelf; dark blue > 3 km depth.

At NUI Galway’s Ryan Institute, we have been using ROV Holland I, deployed from the Ireland’s largest research vessel, RV Celtic Explorer, to explore the most extensive submarine canyon system in Irish waters – the Whittard Canyon.

Red-fleshed file clams, deep-water oysters and cold-water corals on a vertical wall approximately 600 m deep in the Whittard Canyon.  (Photos taken by NUI Galway, copyright Marine Institute.)

Red-fleshed file clams, deep-water oysters and cold-water corals on a vertical wall approximately 600 m deep in the Whittard Canyon. (Photos taken by NUI Galway, copyright Marine Institute.)

We have discovered novel habitats, such as the one shown above, which is found on vertical canyon walls between 600 and 800 m depth. We have discovered new and rare species. And we have found rich assemblages of deep-water corals.

But our research is about more than just discovery. We want to understand how these ecosystems function. The wall habitats of corals, deep-water oysters and file clams are very stable and slow growing: the oysters are thought to live to 2-300 years old. So they could take a long time to recover from any damage: be that from lost trawl gear, climate change or something else.

To know how best to protect them, we need to know which characteristics of the ocean and canyon system lead them to be there in the first place. Are the currents through the canyon delivering food? Can they just survive anywhere? To try to answer some of these questions, NUI Galway oceanographers have been studying currents and the flow of suspended particles (food for the filter feeders) through the canyon.

Right: a golden-coloured black coral.  They are called ‘black’ corals because their central ‘stem’ is often black.  For a closeup of this black coral species have a look at the video embedded at the end of this article.  Left: Two very different octocorals: one purple, one yellow.  They are called octocorals because each polyp has eight tentacles.  (Photos taken by NUI Galway, copyright Marine Institute.)

Right: a golden-coloured black coral. They are called ‘black’ corals because their central ‘stem’ is often black. For a closeup of this black coral species have a look at the video embedded at the end of this article. Left: Two very different octocorals: one purple, one yellow. They are called octocorals because each polyp has eight tentacles. (Photos taken by NUI Galway, copyright Marine Institute.)

Deeper parts of Whittard Canyon (around 1800 m deep) are exceptionally rich and diverse in coral. There are many stony corals (similar to those that make up coral reefs in the tropics but adapted to colder waters). But more spectacularly there are lots of black corals and octocorals. These corals are soft and perhaps not at all how you might think ‘coral’ looks.

There are worldwide efforts at the moment to describe the many species, and to work out how far each species extends geographically. This is very important for conservation, because if we don’t know that an area has unique species, we cannot make such a strong case for conservation measures for that area, and nor can we ensure that all species occur in at least some protected areas.

Left: Paragorgia the bubblegum coral, right: Paramuricea.  Both coral species are subjects of current USA:Ireland collaborative projects aiming to understand the connections between the eastern and western Atlantic through studying the corals’ DNA.

Left: Paragorgia the bubblegum coral, right: Paramuricea. Both coral species are subjects of current USA:Ireland collaborative projects aiming to understand the connections between the eastern and western Atlantic through studying the corals’ DNA. (Photos taken by NUI Galway, copyright Marine Institute)

Sometimes we need actual samples for our research and we use the robotic arms of the ROV to collect these. Using an ROV is a very environmentally friendly way to conduct research. For species we know, a photograph is sufficient, and for groups that we know need a lot of research, we can take the smallest sample possible: just the tip of a coral branch, which ensures that we have enough to extract DNA for genetic studies and to put under the microscope for morphological studies, but which leaves the coral alive and growing.

NUI Galway Marine Science undergraduate Morag Taite in the ROV control shack on board RV Celtic Explorer.

NUI Galway Marine Science undergraduate Morag Taite in the ROV control shack on board RV Celtic Explorer.

Much of our research, including, for example, genetic studies, is carried out in our laboratories in NUI Galway during the 11 months of the year when we are not at sea. But it is undoubtedly the experience of being at sea which is the highlight of the year for many marine scientists, including the NUI Galway undergraduate students studying Marine Science who join our expeditions.

You can watch some of our video (including underwater footage) from the most recent cruise:

To find out more about the 2014 expedition when we tweeted live pictures, you can read the Storify here:

https://storify.com/LouiseAllcock/celtic-explorer-cruise-ce14009-to-the-whittard-can