Darwin Research & Engagement

The Darwin Research programme is focussed on developing marine organisms in Pembrokeshire, and around the Welsh coast, as a model for monitoring the effects of climate change, global warming and environmental changes on the marine ecosystem. Milford Haven estuary has been selected as one of the best ecosystems in Europe to achieve this. A further aim is seek out marine organisms that have potential applications in biology and medicine, either as model systems for investigating physiological and pathological mechanisms, or as a source of new materials, such as pharmaceuticals. These would have long term economic potential, in line with the pioneering work of Professor Campbell on bioluminescence.

Initially a laboratory was set up by Professor Campbell at the Welston Court Science Centre, and then moved to Pembrokeshire College, set up by Dr Valerie Morse. She has now moved this to a facility near the quayside at Milford Haven, with the support of the Milford haven Port Authority. Boards have been made to collect marine animals from 10-20 feet down, for further study. The initial focus has been bioluminescence, particularly in coelenterates such as Obelia. Several good sites have been identified for monitoring the bioluminescence and fluorescence of these animals. Valerie Morse conducted experiments at the Milford Haven lab to achieve her PhD. She now has several publications. The regulation and origin of bioluminescence in the hydroid Obelia. This was achieved by registering at Cardiff University, with Professor Campbell and Dr Ken Wann as supervisors. Several novel findings were made, including the value of using cutting edge technologies such as DNA and fluorescence as a crucial addition to conventional taxonomy in identifying definitively particular species. A culture system is being developed to answer one of the key questions about the luminous animals – what is the source of the substance that produces their light?

Four cutting edge technologies have been set up:

  1. DNA gel electrophoresis with potential for PCR amplification
  2. Fluorescence microscopy
  3. Chemiluminescence detection and analysis
  4. Bioluminescence imaging and software analysis

A fascinating discovery is that the location of the green fluorescent protein (GFP) in Obelia is a very good indicator for species identification. Many mistakes have been made previously in the literature and Pembrokeshire databases, which have not had access to this technology. A further exciting application of this bioluminescence has been to develop it as a model for the evolution of enzymes, a study that quite surprisingly is leading to a new clinical test in managing lactose and food intolerance, and potentially diabetes. A major aim now is to develop quantification of the bioluminescence and fluorescence of Obelia as a monitor for the long term effects of climate change and global warming on the marine ecosystem.

The Research, Educational and Engagement elements of the Darwin Centre work in harmony to open access to top class science to everyone.

The Researchers:

Valerie Morse FLS

I am a part time researcher and belong to the cell physiology research group in the school of pharmacy at Cardiff University. I am conducting post-doctoral research into how the bioluminescence in Obelia geniculata is triggered. I am also studying different bioluminescent species of Obelia including longissima and dichotoma. The biochemistry behind how they produce light has medical applications. Obelia geniculata is a hydroid found on large brown seaweeds below the tide line. The light producing cells of the hydroid are called photocytes, and confocal microscopy can be used to produce a 3D image of an individual photocyte.  Samples of Obelia longissima have been obtained by using weighted boards and ropes in local marinas.  Obelia longissima prefers to attach to the ropes rather than the boards. I have now achieved support from the Wellcome Trust to explain my research to over 16’s. Many marine species that are bioluminescent have photo proteins which can be extracted and assessed in the lab. I am inviting school and college groups or individuals to the lab to discover more about our research. Individuals can assist with our ongoing research or conduct their own projects. If you are interested in visiting the lab email me on

Download Valerie’s PhD – The regulation and origin of bioluminescence in the hydroid Obelia: