Scientists at NUI Galway (NUIG) have found a way of tailoring the chemical structure of microscopic algae in a way that could enable their use as a vehicle in the delivery of drugs and genes to the site of illnesses or diseases.

The technique uses diatoms, a type of microscopic algae found in freshwater and seawater.

They can be used to synthesise the complicated structures of tiny materials.

Details of the research are published in this month's edition of the academic journal Nature Communications.

The study was carried out by Yvonne Lang, a PhD student at the Network of Excellence for Functional Biomaterials (NFB) at NUIG.

She collected diatoms from Galway Bay and cultured them in the lab.

Using a range of microscopy techniques Ms Lang altered the architecture and chemistry of the diatoms, tailoring them for potential applications.

Much work is currently being done on examining the suitability of nano-materials for a variety of purposes.

However, synthesising materials at nano scale can be very difficult, and so scientists are looking at the structure of existing living organisms for ideas.

Diatoms contain diverse patterns and structures at nano scale, and it is this unique architecture that makes scientists think they might be capable of being used as an efficient means of delivering drugs to their target.

The next phase of the research will see the structure of the diatoms prepared for this purpose.

Diatoms are also being explored as potential biosensors because of their large surface area and optical properties.

More than 100,000 species of diatom have so far been identified.

The work was supervised by NUI Galway's Professor Abhay Pandit and co-supervised by Dr David Finn.

It was funded by Science Foundation Ireland.