Science to unlock toxic secrets

August 20, 2004

The shoals of 3.5m-long Mekong catfish, the denizens of the Komodo dragon enclosure and the dazzling colours of African Rift Valley cichlids will awe visitors to the world's largest aquaria.

When the UK's Nirah Project opens by the end of the decade, some 2 million tourists are expected to wander around the lakes, lagoons and rivers housed in twin living-rainforest domes.

Its creators estimate it could take up to three days for a person to completely get to grips with the site, which will dwarf the Eden Project.

But the scientists who will also flock to the 40 hectare complex are expected to take far longer to explore the biological wonders it will contain.

The Nirah Project will be the focus of a broad range of scientific projects probing freshwater habitats and, in particular, the fish, amphibians and reptiles that live in and around them.

A vital element will be unlocking the biomedical potential hidden in the toxins, venoms and secretions produced by many such creatures, from the tiny Colombian poison dart frog to a pit viper from St Lucia whose venom clots blood.

These substances are believed to contain a vast array of complex bioactive proteins and peptides that could form the basis of new therapies and medicines.

They have remained a largely untapped resource due to the high cost of speculative field trips and the speed at which they break down after leaving the animals.

But Chris Shaw, professor of drug discovery at Queen's University Belfast and one of the four founding professors behind the project, believes their time has come.

He said the project would give scientists ready access to a unique living archive of these substances, all gathered in a non-invasive fashion without harming any animal.

"This will help relaunch British biotechnology," he said. A share of all intellectual property generated in this fashion will go to the Nirah Foundation, which will be ultimately responsible for the research effort.

Scientists from university groups, institutes and pharmaceutical companies will be able to rent space at a well-equipped research hotel close to the aquaria to engage in work across a broad spectrum of disciplines, from molecular genetics to ecology, pharmacology to environmental science.

There will also be a mixture of seconded and staff scientists working in a separate Nirah institute nearby.

At its heart, the initiative is about conservation. Alongside the overall project's efforts to raise awareness of the plight of endangered species and habitats the captive breeding programme will seek to play a small role in helping to support animal populations that are under threat.

Most of Nirah's fish, amphibians and reptiles will be sourced from zoos, farms and other research institutes. Only a minority will be collected in the field.

Researchers will aim to learn about their behaviour and the ecosystems that support them and then pass their discoveries on to conservation programmes.

Furthermore, healthy animals bred at the centre will ultimately be returned to the wild to bolster threatened populations.

Nirah is also part of the recently announced Frozen Ark consortium and will preserve both DNA and viable cells from endangered freshwater species in a cryogenic library.

The eventual scale of the research facilities will depend on the level of interest expressed by members of the scientific community over coming weeks.

  • Any scientist interested in participating in the scheme should contact the team at: amanda. sloyan@macarthur.uk.com outlining the nature of their possible involvement.

Fishy brainwave in the bar

Like so many great ideas, the Nirah Project can trace its genesis to a particularly good session in a bar.

A dozen delegates from an academic conference on fish gathered in a New York drinking den one night in 1997 to put the world to rights.

Only this time the argument did not end when the barman collected the glasses. In fact, it is still going on today.

Steve La Thangue, the Bristol-based zoological consultant who is credited as founder of the Nirah Project, recalled a general disgust at the lack of research into freshwater environments even as they succumbed to human expansion. His fellow drinkers resolved to do something about it.

Dr La Thangue is a stubborn man not easily swayed from any course he embarks on.

He is a former specimen collector for the US Smithsonian Institution and carries part of a stingray sting in his left leg from his days in the field, yet still talks of the animal with a boyish enthusiasm.

Inspired by Dr La Thangue's drive, an informal international network of scientists emerged from that drunken night to nurture a vision of a research institute dedicated to the conservation and study of freshwater species.

The project evolved rapidly. Feverish exchanges of late-night emails produced hosts of innovations, such as the need for aquaria large enough to house shoals of the largest freshwater fish - the Mekong catfish.

The Nirah circle also gradually expanded. Among the new recruits was Ronnie Murning, the original design and development director of the Eden Project in Cornwall, who insisted the centre should be opened to the public, ushering in its final incarnation. Related story
Aquatic domes to dwarf Eden

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