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Nano-Safety Research Group

Specialists in the assessment of nanomaterial toxicity to human health and the environment

Dr Liz Dyrynda

Liz profileImmunology

Marine animals and plants are constantly under threat from viruses, bacteria and parasites. For their survival, they depend on the cells and proteins of their innate immune defence systems.  Currently, research focuses on immune defences in marine invertebrates, particularly molluscan and crustacean shellfish. Understanding how they protect themselves against opportunistic and obligate pathogens is crucial for the continued sustainability of such commercially important species. Additionally, environmental or chemical stress can adversely affect immune cells and molecules, which in turn can impact on successful disease resistance. Research therefore includes not only fundamental studies on how these animals defend themselves, but also investigates the impact of environmental/contaminant stress on the immune system and its consequences.


Impacts of stress on invertebrate immune defence

It was shown following the ‘Sea Empress’ oil spill that effects on the immune system of invertebrates can linger for some time. Such effects were also found to be correlated in some instances with exposure to particular contaminants within complex mixtures. On-going research includes laboratory-based studies on effects of individual stress factors, as well as field-based monitoring, thus comparing observations made under controlled conditions with those in the environment. Under investigation are cellular functions such as phagocytosis, and biochemical/molecular parameters such as enzyme/antimicrobial activities and gene expression of antimicrobial peptides.

Programmed cell death

Programmed cell death (PCD) is a normal part of development and physiology in any animal and also plays an important part in immunity. PCD processes relate to the detection and destruction of abnormal cells and are critical in successful defence against viruses. Crustacean shellfish in particular can suffer huge mortalities from viruses such as White Spot Syndrome Virus. On-going research uses the shore crab, Carcinus maenas, as a model species, looking at detection and quantification of apoptosis and other cell death pathways. Cell death and immunity also relates to inflammation and its successful resolution, and is therefore of interest biomedically. Research projects on PCD are being carried out in collaboration with the Universities of Edinburgh, St Andrews and Stirling, and the Max Planck Institute (Berlin).

Antimicrobial peptides

Antimicrobial peptides are small, cationic peptides that have broad-spectrum antimicrobial activity and are thought to be one of the earliest developed molecular effectors of innate immunity. Many of these peptides have been identified from the immune cells of marine animals. These are not only of interest with respect to development of potential anti-infective compounds, but also in terms of direct defence against pathogens in commercially important species. On-going research includes studies on the phylogeny and function of Whey-Acidic Protein (WAP) domain proteins. These proteins are widely distributed throughout animal phyla and while many have antimicrobial properties, they are also important in other functions such as calcium metabolism. Current research is focussing on the WAP-domain protein, carcinin, and is in collaboration with the University of St Andrews.

Contact Liz

Call: +44 (0) 131 451 8032

Location: John Muir Building, School of Life Sciences, Heriot-Watt University, Riccarton Campus,        Edinburgh, EH14 4AS



 Research Profile