A unique biodomed complex four times the size of the Eden Project is to become a world-class research centre populated with endangered animals, according to plans unveiled by UK scientists.
The Nirah Project, which hopes to be known as the National Institute for Research into Aquatic Habitats, will offer an unprecedented resource for researchers in the biosciences and is set to be one of the biggest attractions in Europe.
It will constitute the world's largest aquarium, stocked with tropical trees and plants and populated by thousands of species of freshwater fish, amphibians and reptiles, including crater-lake sharks to rainforest tree frogs.
The first visitors could be admitted by 2009 and are predicted to reach 2 million a year.
The 40-hectare complex, designed by Nicholas Grimshaw, the architect responsible for the Eden Project, is the brainchild of an international team of bio-logists and conservationists.
The centre, funded by the income from visitors, should boost understanding of the earth's freshwater system and the animals that rely on it. The team also expects to get financial rewards from spin-off ventures, including a share of intellectual property emerging from efforts to develop therapeutic drugs from the bioactive secretions gathered non-invasively from some of the rare species.
The project is backed by Southampton, Oxford, Liverpool and Queen's University Belfast, among other universities.
There will be an educational element to the venture, raising public awareness of the plight of freshwater habitats worldwide.
The project's £250 million cost will be borne principally by private investment, in light of the Eden Project's commercial success.
Philip Graf, former chief executive of newspaper publisher Trinity Mirror, will become chairman of Nirah Holdings Ltd.
Peter May, deputy chairman at merchant bank MacArthur and Co, which is providing financial advice, said: "It will combine the cash flow of a visitor attraction with giant scientific potential."
Negotiations over three possible sites near Bedford, on Merseyside and in Wales close to the Severn Bridge are expected to be concluded next month.
The project has been endorsed by Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard entomologist and Pulitzer prize winner, who has become a founding patron. He described it as an "extremely important resource for conservation, scientific excellence and education. It is a beautiful dream, and its realisation will be of immense international importance."
Nirah will contain three 6.9 million litre aquaria and a host of smaller aquaria and vivaria, landscaped into rivers, lagoons and lakes, inside two 15,000m2 transparent geodesic domes.
The tropical dome could contain a living recreation of a flooded Amazon rainforest as well as the Mekong river system, with a shoal of giant Mekong catfish, the world's largest freshwater fish.
The second dome could contain a verdant temperate landscape, with more than 50 species of freshwater sharks and rays in the third giant aquarium, as well enclosures for Komodo dragons and giant tortoises.
A subterranean fissure leading to the domes will seek to recreate the African Rift Valley, with four aquaria featuring a freshwater coral reef and many brightly coloured fish. There will also be turtles, snakes and crocodiles.
Alongside the gift shops and restaurants catering for public visitors there will be a research campus with an institute for staff and seconded scientists.
Academic groups and pharmaceutical companies will be able to rent space on site at a nearby research hotel and land set aside to house spin-off companies.
Anticipated projects will range from studying the behaviour of poorly understood animals, probing the molecular biology associated with rare toxins and venoms and investigating water quality, safety and waterborne diseases.
Chris Shaw, professor of drug discovery at Queen's and one of the project's four founding professors, predicted it would relaunch British biotechnology.
"It will break the mould on funding science in this country and reawaken interest in biology as an academic subject," he said.
The site will include a cryogenic library of DNA and cells, a large quarantine facility and room for a captive-breeding programme.
The animals' countries of origin would benefit from any scientific developments through the funding of student placements at the project.
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