School of Biological Sciences


New beamline to boost advances in biomedical research

University of Portsmouth researchers were the first academics to use Diamond Light Source’s new Versatile Macromolecular crystallography in situ (VMXi) beamline, the only one of its kind worldwide which has been unveiled.

A transformation of the I02 beamline, the VMXi beamline is solely dedicated to in situ X-ray measurements and has the capacity to store and carry out thousands of user crystallisation experiments under one roof.

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Free public lecture shines a light into our biological world

Professor John McGeehan discussed how shining X-rays at tiny crystals can help solve global challenges from disease to sustainable energy at a free public lecture.

‘Shine on you crazy Diamond – A light into the biological world’ was Professor McGeehan’s inaugural lecture. He said: “We have come a long way since the discovery of the DNA double helix, and now have huge X-ray microscopes such as the Diamond Light Source that can reveal the 3D structures of nature’s molecules of life.”

John McGeehan

Employer's Fair

The School of Biological Sciences held its first Employer’s Fair in the Atrium, Portland Building on Thursday 23 March. Exhibitors included ThermoFisher Scientific, Furgo, Operation Wallacea, Oil Spill Rescue, and Enterprise. In addition, alumni members were present along with the team from Purple Door. The event was attended by approximately 60 -70 students during its two-hour duration, after they had given their poster presentations at the School’s Research Day. Some students were given 15-minute interviews during the Fair, providing them with the chance to improve their interview technique.

The Fair formed part of the School’s Research Day and some of the exhibitors attended the student’s poster session earlier in the day. This inclusion was probably responsible for its apparent success, with students being well informed that the Fair formed part of their day.

bio employer fair

UoP Oyster restoration project research features in the Blue Marine Foundation annual review

Blue Marine Foundation Review 2016 

Our research is part of an ambitious collaboration with Blue Marine Foundation to restore the native oyster Ostrea edulis population in the Solent, and the associated biodiversity and ecosystem benefits this species brings to our coastal environment. During 2015/16, Luke Helmer, an MSc Applied Aquatic Biology student carried out a pilot study aims to trial off-bottom, suspended oyster cages as a suitable aquaculture method to house mature O. edulis that are protected from predators, fishing and habitat destruction.

The trial was a success, and we are now rolling out the next ambitious phase. With the help of Marine Biology undergraduates, we have deployed a further 9000 native oysters that will be moved into specially designed microreef structures in 7 marinas across the Solent in late Feb/early March to be monitored during 2017 and beyond.

The ultimate aim of this project is to develop an aquaculture method that can be easily used in commercial marinas to house a protected population of adult native oysters that will produce juvenile oysters to repopulate the seabed populations across the Solent, and help restore one of Europe’s finest and largest native oyster ecosystems.

Watch this space! #bringbackthenative #UoPMarinebiol

marine foundation

ORCA workshop

On Saturday 28 January, the institute of Marine Sciences hosted a hugely successful whale and dolphin identification workshop run by ORCA, a local marine mammal charity. Over 100 delegates from as far away as Gibraltar attended the day, including a number of University of Portsmouth BSc Marine Biology students. All thoroughly enjoyed the training event and hope to use their new found skills on up and coming ferries and cruises this summer.


IMS discuss Microplastics on That's Solent TV

That's Solent News spoke to Paul Farrell at the Institute of Marine Sciences to discuss microplastics.

More and more plastic is floating through our seas. The artificial material is made to last and parts of plastic can frequently be found in the guts of animals. But these are only the bigger chunks. So called microplastics are almost invisible and they too might end up in animals bodies, and even their bloodstreams. 

Watch the video clip on Youtube.

solent tv news

International Xenopus Meeting

Matt Guille was one of four organisers of the very successful International Xenopus meeting that saw 200 scientists using the clawed frog model to study human diseases and basic biology getting together in Crete.

xenopus meeting

Turning waste into biofuels

Prof. John McGeehan has helped to link together four research groups in the USA with our team at the University of Portsmouth to generate the wide expertise necessary to tackle the complex problem of turning waste biomass into useful products including biofuels, chemicals, plastics, textiles and even carbon-fibre. This effort has been significantly boosted by the US Department of Energy funding and a recent award of £1.1M from a joint NSF- BBSRC grant, with over £400k coming to the School of Biological Science at Portsmouth. Our American colleagues will employ novel synthetic biology tools to help evolve designer enzymes, while we are tasked with analysing their biochemical properties and solving their 3D structures using X-ray crystallography at the Diamond Light Source. This ambitious project, which has direct links to industry, has the potential to make biofuel production commercially viable and create a new range of renewable and sustainable plant-based products.


Humble bait worm worth billions

The humble bait worm wriggling on the hook at the end of an angler’s line may be considered a low-value resource.

But in the first global assessment of its value and impact, University of Portsmouth researchers have revealed it to be an industry worth nearly £6 billion per year.

Bait worms are found to be many times more valuable than premium seafoods for human consumption. For example, blood worms retail at roughly £150 per kilogram in the USA – more than four times the price of lobsters.

Dr Gordon Watson, lead author of the research from the University’s Institute of Marine Sciences, said: “This is the first assessment of its kind in the world highlighting the extraordinary value of worms. To think they are more valuable than costly delicacies like lobster and oysters is quite astounding.”

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Microplastics in the Oceans

Expertise from Dr Paul Farrell along with others from the Institute of Marine Sciences (IMS) were called upon for a Channel 4 News report on Microplastics in the oceans. This follows a report released by Government calling for a national ban on their use in cosmetics.

Click the link to see the video: Channel 4: MP's call for Microbeads ban


MBA Conference

The PhD students at the Institute of Marine Sciences (IMS) organized and hosted the 13th Annual Marine Biological Association Postgraduate Conference from 16-20 May. The Marine Biological Association (MBA) is well-recognized for its history and status within the field of marine biology. With the privilege of hosting the event, this was an excellent opportunity to put Portsmouth in the spotlight of the wider marine science community and to showcase our research and facilities to the 33 delegates in attendance, representing 12 marine research institutions, as well as the external keynote speakers Jamie Craggs (Horniman Museum), Ben Holt (MBA), and Matthew Witt (University of Exeter). The event was sponsored by Camlab, Planet Ocean Ltd, Southern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority, The Challenger Society for Marine Science, with a start-up donation from the MBA.


Whale and dolphin observation training day at the Institute of Marine Sciences

ORCA (a charity involved in protecting whales and dolphins) will be running a whale and dolphin identification workshop at the Institute of Marine Sciences, Portsmouth. This will be a great for Marine Biology students to enhance their skills and find out about these wonderful creatures and how to survey them. Tickets can be signed up from eventbrite.

For more information, please contact Anna Bunney, Community Wildlife Officer at ORCA on: or on 02392 832565.


Institute of Marine Sciences hosts disaster simulation exercise

The Institute of Marine Sciences recently played host to the University of Portsmouth's disaster response simulation exercise. With over 400 people taking part including UN international rescue teams, NGOs and the army, the scenario was a major earthquake hitting a Middle East coastal country in a conflict zone. IMS became an airport reception centre for the arriving UN disaster assessment & coordination teams, whilst the Research Vessel Chinook was also used to ferry casualties of the quake to & from Hayling Island alongside the emergency response NGO, Serve On, practiced using their RIBs to rescue casualties.


RV Chinook II in action

The UoP Research Vessel Chinook II entered service in undergraduate teaching during February and March. Second year students went benthic sampling on a cold (but thankfully calm) February day as part of the Marine Research Skills unit, where students experience off-shore sampling techniques and advanced molecular and morphological specimen identification. Then in early March, third year students from the Coastal Ecosystems unit sampled seafloor communities at a variety of locations to look at how species composition varies in space. The students enjoyed their muddy experience and returned with some useful samples, though some groups were distracted by the odd harbour seal. 

Chinook II

New unit offered in marine ecology

The School of Biological Sciences will offer a new option for the MSc in Applied Aquatic Biology in 2016-17. The unit, called “Subtidal Marine Ecology”, will cover a selection of both theoretical and applied topics in nearshore marine ecosystems. It will also include a field trip, to be run in the Mediterranean Sea, designed to introduce students to the practicalities of data collection underwater.

Find out more about MSc Applied Aquatic Biology

marine ecology

IMS hosts Capturing our Coast social

The Capturing our Coast project held it's first 'Wine and Science' evening for volunteers to come and hear about research into local marine life. The event was hosted by the Institute of Marine Sciences with Dr Ken Collins from the University of Southampton stepping in at the last minute to give an overview of alien species in the Solent.  The CoCoast project will be holding these monthly evenings for project volunteers in various locations in the south east. To find out more please visit the CoCoast website

Capturing our Coast

Wanted: Budding scientists to capture coast

People from Kent to Dorset with a passion for the UK’s coastline are being invited to help make history by being part of the largest coastal marine citizen science project ever undertaken.

The £1.7m Capturing Our Coast project, funded through the Heritage Lottery Fund, is designed to further our understanding of the abundance and distribution of marine life around the UK.

It officially launched this week and, in Portsmouth, the aim is to recruit and train more than 400 volunteers to join the 3,000 recruited nationally to help build an accurate picture of the marine life on the south coast.

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capturing our coast

Polar expert appointed visiting professor

Internationally renowned marine polar expert Professor Lloyd Peck has been appointed visiting professor in marine biology at the University of Portsmouth where he studied for his PhD. Professor Peck, science leader of the British Antarctic Survey, is at the forefront of investigating how marine animals adapt to extreme environments. His appointment is expected to result in significantly increased research collaboration as well as the delivery of seminars and lectures to undergraduates and postgraduates.


Lloyd Peck

Scientists help bring oysters back to Solent

University of Portsmouth marine biologists are helping to regenerate Portsmouth’s native oyster population.

Experts from the Institute of Marine Science (IMS) have joined forces with Land Rover BAR and its partner organisations on a project to revive the Solent’s devastated oyster fishery.

The area once supported an oyster trade worth millions, but in the last few years the population has rapidly declined – through a combination of factors including pollution and dredging – and the oyster fishery collapsed.

The first stage of the project has been the installation of three specially designed pontoons, developed by MDL, at Land Rover BAR’s waterfront base in Old Portsmouth and the introduction of protected cages of adult oysters, which it is hoped will reproduce and eventually reseed the fishery.

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New Practical Boating Skills Unit

BSc Marine Biology students will now be able to improve their boating skills. As part of the continuing skills development the department has introduced a Practical Boating Skills unit. In this 2nd year optional unit students will undertake a combined Powerboat Level 1 and 2 course, complete a marine radio short range course as well as get an introduction to coastal navigation, chart reading, course plotting and coastal surveying.


Marine Research Skills unit launched

To ensure our marine biology graduates develop their full research skillset this year we have introduced a Marine Research Skills unit.  In this 2nd year unit students will experience offshore boat sampling as well as advanced molecular and morphological specimen identification, the latter delivered by taxonomists from Fugro EMU Ltd, a global leader in marine consultancy.  


Aquatic Biodiversity and Ecosystems Conference

Academics and PhD students from the Institute of Marine Sciences have just attended the Aquatic Biodiversity & Ecosystems Conference held at the University of Liverpool.  This international event brought together experts from across the globe and covered a range of fields including biodiversity protection, impacts of climate change, fisheries, ecology and policy. Our scientists gave oral presentations on their research covering: 'The impacts of climate change on benthic systems (Shannon White); 'The marine microbial assemblages associated with diseased sponges' (Dr Joanne Preston) and  'Polychaete bait: the world's most valuable fisheries (Dr Gordon Watson). 


Marine conference comes to Portsmouth

It has been announced that the 13th annual MBA Postgraduate Conference will be held at University of Portsmouth University from May 16-20, 2016. It will be hosted by the Institute of Marine Sciences and is a forum for postgraduate marine scientists to disseminate and discuss their work. For more details please contact Shannon White or visit the MBA website

The MBA is a charitable association that aims to promote scientific research into all aspects of life in the sea, including the environment on which it depends, and to disseminate to the public the knowledge gained.

MBA logo

National coastal project wins £1.7m

£1.7m funding has been given to the largest citizen marine science project ever undertaken to help monitor and protect marine life around the UK’s coastline.

Dr Gordon Watson and his research team at the University of Portsmouth’s Institute of Marine Sciences will play a key role in the ‘Capturing our Coast’ project which is recruiting 3,000 volunteers from across the UK to work alongside experts.  The project is designed to establish a baseline so scientists can better understand how the marine environment is responding to global climate change. The results will inform future policy and conservation strategies. 

Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the project, led by Newcastle University, includes scientists from the universities of Portsmouth, Hull, Bangor and the Scottish Association for Marine Science, and a number of key organisations including the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth, the Marine Conservation Society, Earthwatch Institute, the Natural History Museum, Cefas and the Coastal Partnerships Network.  Hundreds of volunteers from across the region will work with Dr Watson and his team from September. 

The project will be open for volunteers wanting to take part from September. For more information and to register an interest, email

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Capturing our coast

School of Biological Sciences purchases new research vessel

The RV Chinook II is the newest addition to the School of Biological Sciences research vessel capability.  Based in Southsea Marina, she has the capability to sample offshore within the Solent and beyond and complements the current inshore RV Calypso.  At over 10 metres long, Chinook II will be able to carry up to 12 students plus crew and will be an integral part of the teaching across all years for BSc Marine Biology undergraduates as well as being available for commercial activity, postgraduates and researchers. 

RV Chinook II 2

Researcher awarded six-figure grant from BBSRC

Third generation vaccines aim to target a much wider range of disease than vaccinations currently in use. They are also far safer, because instead of using weakened bugs or parts of pathogens, third generation vaccines are made of DNA that holds instructions for making a small harmless part of the bug. Once in the body, the DNA vaccine is taken up by cells that generate a highly specific immune response. This technique has been shown to work well for race-horses and a few other mammals but the success in humans has been limited.
To try and understand why, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council has awarded a £356,000 grant to an IBBS researcher, Dr Simon Kolstoe, based in the biophysics laboratories at the University of Portsmouth. His team is trying to understand the unique way that the human body handles DNA in the blood. Understanding the basic science behind DNA vaccination is key to developing this new method for effective use in a wide range of both bacterial and viral based diseases.

University collaborates with Isle of Wight Garden


A new collaboration with Ventnor Botanical Garden on the Isle of Wight will allow staff at the University of Portsmouth to research the effect of climate change on the garden’s plants.

The collaboration, driven by Dr Rocio Perez-Barrales and Dr Matthew Tallis, will also provide many other research opportunities for staff and students, as well as a good setting for experiments on the ecology and biology of plant species.

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Prawns on Prozac – antidepressants threaten aquatic wildlife

Tiny quantities of anti-depressants are affecting aquatic wildlife such as crustaceans and molluscs, a new study shows.

Scientists are increasingly aware that drugs like Prozac and Sertraline, the most commonly prescribed antidepressants can affect aquatic life. Now they have found that lower than expected concentrations of the drugs in the water will affect the behaviour and biological make-up of these creatures, including changing colour, growing bigger and reproducing more.

In some cases, a lower concentration affected them more than a higher dose.

Dr Alex Ford, a marine biologist from the University of Portsmouth, has been studying the effect of the drugs on a range of organisms for several years. His latest research appears in a special issue of Aquatic Toxicology, of which he is guest editor. The issue contains a range of studies that suggest that pharmaceuticals in the environment can impact the complex range of behaviours in aquatic organisms, from speed of movement to reproduction.

He said: “There is a staggering list of prescription drugs passed from humans to wastewater treatment plants and into receiving streams, estuaries, or oceans by direct consumption, metabolism, and excretion or by toilet flushing of old prescriptions."

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IMS appoints water quality expert


Dr Jonathan Richir has been appointed to work on the new 1.06M euro project: Channel Catchments Cluster (3C) bringing together English and French partners around the Channel.  This project aims to provide long-term improvements in water quality within rivers, estuaries and coastal waters in the English Channel region.

Dr Richir will be based at the Institute of Marine Sciences and join Dr Watson's research group.

He will also work in close collaboration with stakeholders and other partners from the Universities of Le Havre, Rennes, Brighton and Plymouth together with the Westcountry Rivers Trust, Cornwall Wildlife Trust, L’Ecole Superieure D’Ingenieurs des Travaux de la Construction and the Institute National de l’Environment Industriel et des Risques.


Demon shrimp threaten British species

A species of shrimp, dubbed the ‘demon shrimp,’ which was previously unknown in British waters, are attacking and eating native shrimp and disrupting the food chain in some of our rivers and lakes. The problem is contributing to the cost of Invasive non-native species (INNS) to the British economy, which is estimated at a total annual cost of approximately £1.7 billion.

Dr Alex Ford, a marine scientist from the University of Portsmouth, is investigating the problem with support from the Environment Agency. He said that demon shrimp, so called because of their larger size and aggressive behaviour, are currently a more widespread threat than the ‘killer shrimp’ also known to have invaded British waters in 2010. The fear is that some of Britain’s native shrimp are in danger of being completely eradicated from some rivers and lakes, he added.

“They are out-eating and out-competing our native shrimps and changing the species dynamic in our rivers and lakes. As soon as one species is depleted it can affect the whole food chain with potentially catastrophic results.”

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Gribble enzyme might be holy grail for biofuel

Scientists at the Universities of Portsmouth and York have discovered a new enzyme that could prove vital in the quest to turn waste paper, wood and straw into liquid fuel.

Dr Simon Cragg and Dr John McGeehan, from Portsmouth, and colleagues made their discovery after examining the gut of gribbles – a tiny marine wood-borer which destroys seaside piers.

Using advanced biochemical analysis and x-ray imaging, researchers in Portsmouth, York and at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the US, have identified the enzyme that allows gribbles to digest enormous quantities of wood and produced the first three dimensional image of it which reveals how it works.

The findings, published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA), will help the researchers to reproduce the enzyme’s effects on an industrial scale which is likely to lead to the generation of liquid biofuels from sustainable resources.

Dr McGeehan said: “The major breakthrough came when colleagues Dr Simon Streeter and Richard Martin successfully made crystals of the enzyme in the Portsmouth Crystallography Facility.  We then transported them under liquid nitrogen to the Diamond Light Source, the UK’s national synchrotron science facility. Rather than magnify the enzyme with a lens as in a standard microscope, we fired an intense beam of X-rays at the crystals to generate a series of images that can be transformed into a 3D model.

“The Diamond synchrotron produced such good data that we could visualise the position of every single atom in the enzyme. Our US colleagues then used powerful supercomputers to model the enzyme in action. Together these results help to reveal how the cellulose chains are digested into glucose.”

This information will help the researchers to design more robust enzymes for industrial applications. While similar cellulases have been found in wood-degrading fungi, the enzyme from gribble shows some important differences. In particular, the gribble cellulase is extremely resistant to aggressive chemical environments and can work in conditions seven times saltier than sea water. Being robust in difficult environments means that the enzymes can last much longer when working under industrial conditions and so less enzyme will be needed.

Dr Cragg said: “Enzymes of this type are common in fungi, but this is the first animal enzyme to be explored and it has much to teach us.”.

Dr McGeehan said: “The 3D structure has revealed that although the skeleton of the gribble enzyme is very similar to the equivalent enzymes in fungi, the surface is unrecognisable. It appears that the consequence of evolution in a marine environment is an acidic coat that protects the enzyme from high concentrations of salt. This unusual salt tolerance and stability represent exciting properties with great potential benefit to industry.”

“The robust nature of the enzymes makes it compatible for use in conjunction with sea water, which would lower the costs of processing. Lowering the cost of enzymes is seen as critical for making biofuels from woody materials cost effective. Its robustness would also give the enzymes a longer working life and allow it to be recovered and re-used during processing.”

Scientists challenge meaning of biodiversity


The first ever study to go beyond counting species in a given area has revealed new hotspots of marine diversity. The new research challenges conventional wisdom about what biodiversity means.

A new global study of reef fishes, published in Nature, examines the abundance and characteristics of species and identifies new hotspots of marine life, including the potential for some in the UK. It questions previous thoughts about what constitutes biodiversity and may mean a change of direction for conservation efforts.

The report, co-authored by scientists at the Universities of Portsmouth and Dundee, presents an alternative view of global biodiversity patterns which reflects ecological processes. It suggests that the most devastating effects of pollution, overfishing and other human pressures may be experienced not in the regions where most conservation efforts are currently concentrated but in areas with fewer species, such as the seas around the UK.

Dr Trevor Willis from the Institute of Marine Sciences, said “Since the days of Darwin and Linnaeus, the number of different species in an ecosystem—what researchers call ‘species richness’—has dominated the scientific view of global biodiversity patterns and has long been used as a biological basis for management of imperilled ecosystems.

“But just counting species is a very crude way of understanding diversity. By gathering information on the animal’s traits—what they eat, how they move, where they live—we can understand more about how they vary in terms of their function in the operation of natural ecosystems. This functional variation is really the essence of biodiversity.”

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Politics and half-measures failing marine conservation


Some of the world’s most vulnerable marine habitats are being failed by the conservation orders put in place to protect them.

A new study, published online in Nature, shows that a majority of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) do not fulfil their conservation goals. An international team surveyed over 2000 species of reef fishes inside and outside MPAs in 40 countries. They found that in most cases, marine wildlife populations inside parks or reserves are no different to those found in fished areas.

Dr Trevor Willis from the Institute of Marine Sciences, said that the results demonstrated that many MPAs are protected only in name and described them as ‘paper parks’, where in many cases it was business as usual. He said it is unsurprising that the study found little recovery in fish populations.

“Planning that gives precedence to stakeholder opinion – rather than the protecting target species – may work politically but will not have any real benefits in the water.

“Marine reserves or parks that allow any form of fishing, that are inadequately enforced and too small to encompass the natural range of the most vulnerable species are likely to fail as protection measures.”

Dr Willis said the study challenges environmental planners and agencies to improve.

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