We are living longer with an increase in human lifespan of 2.5 years per decade. Scientists are now focused on achieving healthspans, where we live disease free, which can match our longer lives.
This piece for Drivetime on RTE Radio 1, broadcast on 21st June, features interviews with three leading scientists working on different ways to solve the ageing ‘problem’; Luke O’Neill, TCD, Fergal O’Brien, RCSI, and Emma Teeling UCD.
The Covanta Dublin Waste to Energy plant is now operating at full capacity, but questions remain around the safety and potential public health impact of the plant.
I visited the plant on 15th March 2018 to put these questions to its General Manager, John Daly, and to take a close up look at the technology that is required to incinerate 600,000 tonnes of black bin waste.
Listen below to the piece broadcast on Drivetime on 26th March 2018.
The election of Donald Trump, looming Brexit and the ominous re-awakening of fascism across Europe are just some of the reasons why many people today might think that things are getting worse, as we struggle to cope with an unstable world.
However, Stephen Pinker, the celebrated Prof of Psychology at Harvard University, argues in his new book ‘Enlightenment Now – The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress’ (Penguin Random House, 2018) that, despite all the pessimism, things are getting better.
This is due to the ongoing, and spreading influence of Enlightenment ideas around the world, the author argues, while presenting data, charts and graphs to support his optimistic position.
Prof Pinker’s is giving a talk at TCD on Friday 23rd, February
A new gene-editing tool that can precisely ‘cut and paste’ DNA to remove segments that cause disease or insert pieces that promote health benefits is, some scientists believe, as important a scientific invention as the microscope.
Scientists in Ireland are part of the what’s being called the CRISPR revolution and many biological researchers are using this technology has the potential to change the world.
From the ground-shaking discovery of the double-helix of DNA by Watson and Crick in 1953 so much followed in the years, and decades since. We have learned how DNA passing from one generation to the next, how it transmits signals to the cells, and the body, and how, when DNA building blocks get laid down in the wrong way, that it can cause sometimes deadly genetic diseases.
We are now at another historic moment in biological science, because scientists have in their hands a tool, which enables them to precisely manipulate DNA in a way that was never possible before. This tool is CRISPR and some scientists predict it could lead to the end of all genetic diseases, and perhaps even the eradication of all diseases, whether genetic or not.
Luke O’Neill is a professor of biochemistry at Trinity College, and one of the world’s leading immunologists. He is using CRISPR to study specific genes in the immune system, to change them, or modify them and see if they are important.
Breandan Kennedy, is a professor at the School of Biomolecular and Biomedical Science at UCD. He is using CRISPR to try and correct vision loss, blindness due to faulty genes and even non-inherited forms of cancer.
Dr Niall Barron is based at National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training, or NIBRT in Dublin. He is using CRISPR to make the manufacture of highly effective, but expensive biologically-based drugs such as Enbrel made by Pfizer in Dublin and Humira, made by Abbvie in Sligo. Both are used to treat rheumatoid arthritis.
Meanwhile, at Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin, Dr Terry Prendiville, a consultant paediatric cardiologist, is using CRISPR, along with colleagues based at NUI Galway, to try and repair inherited cardiac defects in children.
Dr Prendiville points out that it could be some years before CRISPR can be used to help repair the hearts of children with inherited defects.
CRISPR is described by Luke O’Neill as being as important to science as the invention of the microscope, and it has the potential to eradicate many of the debilitating and deadly diseases that are today considered incurable.
The most important telescope ever built in Ireland, one capable of revealing the most closely guarded secrets of the Universe, was switched on by Minister John Halligan today (27th July 2017) in Birr Castle Co Offaly.
The scientists behind Ireland’s LOFAR radio telescope say that it can listen in to signals coming from even the most distant parts of space, and could conceivable, one day, detect a signal from an extraterrestrial civilisation.
Up to today, if ET was going to send a signal to the Earth via radio – which many believe would be his preferred option for technical reasons – Ireland certainly would not be the first place to pick up the historic transmission.
After today, it is entirely possible that Birr Castle, which is now proudly home to Ireland’s LOFAR radio telescope, could be the location where the world’s press gather to hear of the first radio contact from another civilisation.
The person that has, more than any other, put Irish astronomy back on the map, in a way that it hasn’t been since the 19th century, is Peter Gallagher, professor in astrophysics at Trinity College Dublin.
Peter led the countdown to the switching on of I-LOFAR this morning, and even heavy rain didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of a crowd of scientists, locals, journalists, as well as Minister Halligan and his officials.
It is entirely fitting that Birr Castle is home to I- LOFAR as it is also home to the Leviathan of Parsonson, an enormous hulking optical, or light-based telescope, that sits in a field adjacent to the new arrival. The Leviathan, was the world’s largest and most famous telescope between the years 1845 and 1917.
It was built, designed and operated by William Parsons, the Third Earl of Rosse, a brilliant scientist, who used his remarkable telescope, and eyesight, to make out the distinctive spiral shape of what became known as a whirlpool galaxy, because of its distinctive shape, called M51. That was in 1845.
This discovery was huge, because it meant that there was more than one galaxy outside our own, the Milky Way and meant the Universe was a lot larger than we had thought up to then. The telescope and Lord Rosse attracted visitors from around the world who came to look in awe on the remarkable man and his machine.
The switching on of I-LOFAR today as a proud and emotional day for the current Lord Rosse, Brendan Parsons, the 7th Earl.
Today was a historic and exciting day for Irish astronomy, and puts it back on the international map in a way it hasn’t been since the 19th century. Scientists here, using I-LOFAR, will, as of today, be able to hunt for new planets, try and unravel some of the Universe’s most deeply held secrets, and even, one day, perhaps, receive a signal from whatever intelligent life form may wish to send a radio signal our way.
Click HERE to listen to report for Drivetime on RTE Radio 1
(Broadcast 5th June, 2017)
Butterflies, and bees provide a number of ecological services essential for any landscape – including pollination and – and their numbers and diversity in an area are considered to be excellent indicators of how well insects generally are doing in a landscape.
To see how they are getting on in the Irish landscape I visited Ballyannan woods near Midleton in Cork. This is an area where cultivated fields with neat rows of potato plants lie next to Ballyannan woods, a mixed woodland, containing sycamore, beech and natural oak trees popular with local walkers.
The diversity of the landscape here makes it an ideal location for the National Biodiversity Data Centre to carry out weekly butterfly monitoring, along the same designated route, for seven months per year.
I met Dr Tomas Murray an ecologist with the Data Centre and members of a diverse butterfly monitoring and counting group, which included students, older people and people working with local community groups.
It was an overcast day, and on days like these, it can be more difficult to catch butterflies, but after a little while we were in luck.
I also spoke to Dr Dara Stanley, a lecturer in Plant Ecology in the Botany and Plant Science Dept at NUI Galway has investigated how human activities are impact on bees in particular, but also butterflies and other insects.
One of Dr Stanley’s research projects focused on the impact of neonicotinoid pesticides, which are used as seed treatments on crops.
Dr Stanley explained to me that the use of chemicals, herbicides and pesticides of all types is killing bees, but also affecting their behaviour and reducing the food that is available to them.
Over the years, many rare species of bumblebee have been migrating westward across Ireland to those areas where hay making, and hay meadows, which are full of flowers, is still common practice.
Changes in agricultural practice too have reduced the places where pollinating insects can live, and reduced the amount of flowers they can eat. The cutting of gardens in suburban landscapes has a similar effect, Dr Stanley said.
Certainly, changes in the landscape over the last half century of so around Midleton and many other parts of Ireland have been dramatic. Much of the change has come about as a result of more intensive use of the land.
The decline of butterflies and bees in Ireland has been dramatic, and the question is what can be done to stop or reverse the decline.
An All Ireland Pollinator Plan, a north-south initiative which began in 2015, set out some specific ways that farmers, gardeners and others can help halt or reverse the decline of our pollinators, butterflies and other insects.
The recommendations for farmers include allowing field margins to grow unmanaged encouraging wild grasses to grow, or to introduce wild flower strips.
For gardeners the message is don’t cut the grass too regularly, every six weeks is enough, and allow one small sunny spot to grow unimpeded.
For now, the decline in our biodiversity is reversible, scientists believe, but if ignore the red flags that nature is raising, we’re likely to pay a heavy price for our inaction.
The haunting cry of the curlew, the wading bird with the long-curved bill which has been written about in song and verse and was once common across the Irish countryside.
Sadly, there are just 120 breeding pairs of curlew left in Ireland, a bird that has been written about in song and verse and was once so common across the Irish countryside. Thousands of curlew flock to our shores in winter to escape harsh scandinavian winters, native Irish curlew, are now on the verge of extinction.
I went in search of the curlew recently, and began by meeting Alan Lauder, an independent wildlife conservation consultant, and Chair of the Curlew Task Force, set up by the government last November, in a desperate attempt to prevent the disappearance of our native Curlews.
I met Alan in Broad Lough, an estuary of the Varty river, near Wicklow town. It’s one of the many places around the Irish coastline where thousands of foreign-born curlews come to feed and take advantage of the mid Irish climate when they are not breeding. Many people in the conservation community had long suspected that all was not right with the curlew, but until recently nothing was done, Alan told me.
In November of last year, a meeting took place in Mullingar where experts and interested bodies gathered to discuss the plight of the native Irish curlew. The meeting decided that urgent action was required to save the bird, Alan told me.
The following day, still having not seen or heard a curlew, I travelled north in hope, to the village of Carrickroe, Co Monaghan, to meet Anita Donaghy and Joe Shannon of Birdwatch Ireland. Anita who is a project field officer for Birdwatch, gave me the background to the Curlew’s gradual, sad decline.
Joe, who is the local field officer for Birdwatch, travels around the north Monaghan countryside listening for the alarm call of the adult curlew, which indicates that curlew chicks are in the area.
He reassured me that earlier this morning he had found a breeding pair, with chick or chicks, in a newly cut field, in Drumlin country, a couple of miles north of Carrickroe village.
We had finally found a pair of native Irish breeding curlews, with one adult, probably the male, circling constantly, protecting at least one chick on the ground.
The curlew chicks are vulnerable to predators such as the fox, as they are exposed out in the centre of a cut field. The eggs are laid on the ground for one month, and then it takes a further five weeks for the chicks to gain the ability to fly, or fledge. In days gone by, sheer numbers of curlew meant the population remained stable, despite the vulnerability in early life.
Today, however, Birdwatch Ireland estimate that – just for the native curlew population to remain stable – requires each breeding pair to produce one chick, but surveys indicate curlews are only producing one chick for every five pairs.
The suspicion is that curlews are continuing to decline at perhaps a rate of 10 per cent per year, so unless something big is done, the cry of the native curlew will be lost to Ireland forever in a few short years.
The odds appear to be against the survival of the native curlew, but the National Parks and Wildlife Service is not giving up and has introduced measures to reduce the threat from predators,
If the curlew is to survive it will also require farmers to co-operate with conservation efforts in the areas where the curlew remains, and for the public to row in behind with active support through donations or volunteering their help.