Ireland-U.S. Partnership Funds UMaine Algal Toxin Research

Contacts: Laurie Connell, (207) 581-2470; Rosemary Smith, (207) 581-3361; Aimee Dolloff, (207) 581-3777

The University of Maine is one of the first to receive an international research partnership award, designed to link U.S. scientists and engineers with counterparts in Ireland.  The first four tri-partite U.S.-Ireland R&D partnerships, valued at more than $10 million were announced at a recent event hosted by the U.S. Ambassador to Ireland in Dublin.

The BEACONS (Biosafety for EnvironmentAl COntaminants using Novel Sensors) project aims to develop strategies for isolating and detecting algal toxins that are causing major health issues for humans in some coastal areas. The project has received more than $1 million in joint funding from the Science Foundation Ireland ($382,883), Invest Northern Ireland Department for Employment and Learning ($352,166), and the National Science Foundation ($370,490). UMaine will receive about one-third of this funding for its portion of the project.

Research partners in the project include UMaine Associate Research Professor Laurie Connell of the School of Marine Sciences and engineering Professor Rosemary Smith, along with Richard O’Kennedy of Dublin City University, Ireland, Gregory Doucette of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, South Carolina, and Christopher Elliott of Queens University Belfast, N. Ireland.

“I’m thrilled to be a member of this international team, tackling an environmental problem of mutual concern,” says Smith.

The BEACONS project aims to develop novel strategies for the isolation and detection of algae from both seawater (Alexandrium) and freshwater (Microcystis) and their associated toxins, that are of significant concern as environmental and food contaminants.  In Maine, the alga Alexandrium is commonly called red tide and is responsible for extensive closures of shellfish harvests.

Paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) caused by consumption of shellfish that have fed on the toxic alga Alexandrium remains a major health concern throughout North American coastal areas. As , andincreasing numbers of people live in immediate proximity to the ocean, the risk of exposure to this natural hazard also grows. Microcystis contains toxins that are increasingly found reservoirs and lakes used for drinking water

The consortium of partners, assembled as a result of the U.S.-Ireland Partnership initiative, has complementary expertise in sample handling, marine and fresh water environmental research, assay development – using antibodies, peptide nucleic acids and receptors/channels, microfluidics, sensor assay generation and associated applications.

The project is specifically designed to strategically exploit this combined expertise to tackle major algal toxin problems that are common to the U.S. and Ireland.  A highly innovative sample collection/concentration system and a sensor-based prototype system, with industrial input from Precision Photonics Corporation, a U.S. company, will be developed.

Regular meetings and exchanges of staff and students between the partner institutions are planned that will foster training, education and outreach.