Sponge inhabiting the Irish coast
Jun 26 2017 Posted: 16:54 IST

NUI Galway will host the 10th World Sponge Conference for five days this week, 26-30 June. This is the biggest event on sponges in the world and the first time it is being held in Ireland. It will bring together the youngest and brightest minds and international scientists from all over the globe to present their latest research findings on sponges, a group of common animals in our seas that have the possibility of yielding the next wonder drug for treating serious medical conditions.

Sea sponges are an ancient group of animals that appeared more than 600 million years ago that have many of the same genes as humans. Scientists are taking advantage of sponges to isolate marine natural compounds from these organisms to develop medicines useful in the treatment of human diseases such as cancer.

Scientists at NUI Galway and around the world have been carrying out research on marine sponges that have been discovered to produce toxins that can target a range of different cancers and other diseases and will share and discuss this research at the conference. These ancient sea sponges could hold the key to a breakthrough in a range of diseases and infections like MRSA.

Very little is known about sponges despite them being important members of the marine environment stretching from the coast to the deep sea and from the Polar regions to the tropics.

The conference will reflect on the main areas in which sponge biology is developing at present, as well as traditional research categories. It will also provide a platform to bring together industry and sponge science and explore how to further develop sponge natural products.

There will also be discussion fora to address topics of particular interest or which are developing at speed, such as systematics, natural products and genomics. It will be an important venue for early stage researchers to communicate their work and meet with established international researchers.

Professor Grace McCormack, Conference Chair and a Zoologist in the School of Natural Sciences at NUI Galway, said: “The conference is the biggest gathering of this research community in its 40 year history. Galway has been a very attractive destination for scientists from all over the world. We have a jam packed programme with cutting-edge science being presented and it will form the basis of a book to be published later in the year. Sponges have developed an extensive array of chemicals to protect themselves against bacteria, viruses and attack by other organisms. One such compound formed the basis for the anti-HIV drug AZ used by millions of humans. Sponges may also provide sources of nanoparticles of silica for the biotech industry as well as other biomolecules such as collagens.”

Professor Lokesh Joshi, Vice-President for Research at NUI Galway, said: “We can learn so much from the natural world. Over 8000 species of sponge are currently described by science, and although these are simple organisms, they have outstanding attributes - such as the ability to regenerate. Our University, here on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, has a range of marine research underway, including the exploration of marine sponges in the treatment of human disease. This conference is an ideal opportunity to collaborate, exchange knowledge, and advance research in this field.”

Keynote speakers include Professor Sally Leys, Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta in Canada, whose group as marine biologists takes them on yearly research cruises to study deep-water glass sponge reefs in coastal British Columbia, and to study sponges in Norway, Panama and the Canadian Arctic. Associate Professor James Bell, a marine biologist in the School of Biological Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. And several other leading international marine academics and researchers.

The World Sponge Conference is supported by Science Foundation Ireland, the Marine Institute, NUI Galway and Fáilte Ireland.

The conference will take place from Monday 26-30 June in the Arts Science Concourse at NUI Galway.

For more conference details, visit: http://www.conference.ie/Conferences/index.asp?Conference=489.

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