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ISSUE

47

July/August 2011

€5 including VAT £4 NI and UK

SCIENCE

SPIN www.sciencespin.com

IRELAND’S SCIENCE NATURE AND DISCOVERY MAGAZINE LIVE LINK

LAWLESS WEEDS RECOVERING FROM THE NUCLEAR BLASTS

ROCKY WEST CAN WE GET SMARTER?

Where creativity and great science meet LIVE LINK

www.dublinscience2012.ie


The Brownshill Dolmen in Co Carlow, dating to circa 3000 BC, is the largest in Europe with its granite capstone weighing over one hundred and fifty tons.

Photograph by Ian Michael.

Du Noyer Geological Photography Competition 2011 Entries are invited for the 13th Du Noyer Geological Photography Competition George Victor Du Noyer, who served as a geologist with the Geological Survey of Ireland from 1847 to 1869, was a skilled field artist whose numerous sketches and pictures, with their combination of artistic skill and technical accuracy, were the “field photographs” of their day. This competition seeks to encourage the same blend of artistic and scientific skills through the medium of photography. Prizes will be awarded in two categories, Irish and Foreign, and a prize fund of €800 applies. Entrants may submit a maximum of 4 photographs, print or digital, illustrating any aspect of field geology or scenic landscapes. Previously published photographs are not eligible for entry, and the organisers are not in a position to return entries. The competition will be judged by a panel including representatives of the Irish Geological Association, the GSI and external nominees and their decision will be final. Entries will be exhibited and prizes awarded at a GSI Cunningham Awards ceremony in early December 2011. We will acknowledge all entries by e-mail. Winners only, will be notified directly in November 2011 and results will be posted on the GSI website in December 2011. GSI reserves the right to reproduce entries in its publications and promotional activity with due acknowledgement. Print entries should be posted in an envelope marked “Du Noyer Competition” to: Cartography Unit, Geological Survey of Ireland, Beggars Bush, Haddington Rd, Dublin 4 or digital entries should be e-mailed to info@planetearth.ie

What are the judges looking for?

Creativity, technical skill, and above all, good geological content.

Closing date for entries: Friday 7th October 2011

LIVE LINK


SCIENCE

SPIN Publisher Science Spin Ltd 5 Serpentine Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4. www.sciencespin.com Email: tom@sciencespin.com Editor Tom Kennedy tom@sciencespin.com Contributing editor Seán Duke sean@sciencespin.com Business Development Manager Alan Doherty alan@sciencespin.com Design and Production Albertine Kennedy Publishing Cloonlara, Swinford, Co Mayo

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Upfront Science super star

Seán Duke talks to Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Looking ahead

Veronica Miller writes about getting smart

Blooming research

Taking a closer look at algae

Recovering from the explosive past Clearing up a nuclear mess

Picture research Source Photographic Archive www.iol.ie/~source.foxford/

Getting stuck on research

Printing Turner Group, Longford

Exploring some of Ireland’s oldest rocks/

Subscribe for just €30 a year, six issues. Register to receive free links to our digital issues. www.sciencespin.com

Modelling industrial adhesives

Rocky west

Clicker training

A better way to get animals to behave

Sea lettuce

Turning a problem into an advantage

Spreading trees Lawless weeds

Reviews

Flying dinosaurs and a novel with a scientific twist.

Go to

www.sciencespin.com and listen to what researchers have to say

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The noxious docks

Margaret Franklin reports on treating disease with silver bullets

ON AIR

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Seeds take flight

Precious metals SCIENCE

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Geological Survey of Ireland Suirbhéireacht Gheolaiochta Eireann

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Follower

For the past 250,000 years, and perhaps for longer, an asteroid has been following the Earth. First spotted by Apostolos Christou and David Asher from Armagh observatory, the asteroid was detected by the WISE infrared satellite, launched in 2009. Dr Christou reports that the orbit is almost identical to the Earth’s, and this in turn suggests that we may even share an origin. Because of the orbit’s configuration, the asteroid, which has been estimated to be 200 to 400 metres across, never comes closer to Earth than 50 times our distance to the Moon. According to the astronomers, the asteroid, known as 2010 So16, is “not that difficult” to spot with a mediumsized professional telescope, As for its origins, the astronomers think that it may represent some of the relict materials left over from the formation of the Earth, Moon and other inner planets four and a half billion years ago.

Walking molecules

WhEn molecules are repelled by water, they can skip across the surface, in a movement a bit like crossing a stream, on stepping stones. The notion that this could happen has been known in theory for some time, but as UCC Tyndall researcher, Dr Damien Thompson has explained, tests by his colleagues at Twente in The netherlands, show that computer simulations are correct. Two legged molecules can indeed move across a wet surface as predicted. As Dr Thompson points out, on a small enough scale, hydrophobic molecules do not just flow over water, but they can clump and skip across. To put theories to the test, the researchers at Twente devised an experiment in which two pronged molecules were tracked using a fluorescence microscope as they moved along a wet surface. The molecules, reported Dr Thompson, exhibited a surprising agility, going from walking to hopping to flying, depending on environmental conditions. The study, involving intensive computer modelling, represents a significant advance in manipulation of materials at a molecular level.

UPFRONT

Invading hare

ThE Irish hare, often seen standing up before bounding away, is facing stiff competition from a European competitor. Scientists from Queen’s Belfast have drawn attention to the spread of the European Brown hare in mid Ulster and west Tyrone. Dr neil reid from the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, said that the European hare, originally confined to southwest Europe and parts of Asia, has been extending its range. Dr reid said the European hare may have a competitive edge over our native species, which has been resident since the last glacial age.

Prostrate cancer

ThE aim of the recently launched Prostate Cancer Institute at nUI Galway is to reduce the incidence of this disease which causes more than 500 deaths a year in Ireland. The Institute, directed by Prof Frank Sullivan, draws on the considerable expertise available in Galway, while working with research institutes in Ireland and abroad. Galway University hospital, one of the eight specialist cancer treatment centres in Ireland, and has considerable experience in this form of the disease.

The European Brown hare, Leptus europaeus, is moving in to Ireland. Under the director of laboratory research, Dr Sharon Glynn, a bank of tissues is to be built up so that molecular and genetic markers for this particular form of cancer can be identified. As with breast cancer, identification of these markers can help in diagnosis and in developing more effective treatments. one of the priorities at the Institute is to develop better therapies against relapse in patients currently unresponsive to existing treatments. Development of novel treatments involves joint collaboration between nUI Galway and TCD under the Institute’s scientific director, Prof Frank Giles.

Access barred by threat of litigation

GAInInG access to land has become more of an issue since urban dwellers have gone walk-about in the countryside. Gates left open, unprotected fires near forestry, fences trampled down and disturbance of stock are among the concerns making farmers cautious about allowing uninvited guests to wander across their land. One of the knock-on effects of this is that scientists have a lot less freedom to record flora and fauna or to examine interesting rock exposures. The threat of expensive litigation hangs over everyone, and the recent experience of the Dublin naturalists’s Field Club is a good example. For generations, members have been recording Ireland’s wildlife, and among the specialist groups is one for butterflies. Hard to imagine what harm butterfly recording could do, but when invited to provide records to the National Parks and Wildlife Service, DNFC members were sufficiently concerned about possible litigation, that they asked for some form of indemnification. The problem, when records become detailed, is that the person submitting the records, can be identified, so if a landowner makes a claim for damages, whether real or imagined, the poor old recorder who strayed from the path could end up in court. Unfortunately, there was no resolution to that issue, so the national Parks and Wildlife Service withdrew their invitation to the DnFC, and put the recording of the Marsh Fritillary out to tender. According to DNFC’s Butterfly Ireland group, “recorders would be extremely unhappy at releasing records at a resolution finer than 1 km, and that such a happening would most likely result in an end to access to many sites.” The DNFC group will continue their recording of butterflies, but care is being taken not to disclose the identify of recorders. For lots of information about Irish butterflies visit the DNFC site: www.butterflyireland.com LIVE LINK

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UPFRONT

Flushed

AlmOST every home has tubes, bottles and packs of medicines stashed away long after they have served their original purpose. many of these medicines pack quite a punch, and flushing them away is likely to cause serious contamination of water supplies. Second year medical students at NUI Galway conducted a study to find out what people do with leftover prescription medicines, and it seems that most rely on flushing or burning to dispose of their medical wastes. Sarah Cormican and michelle Furey surveyed 207 people in Galway City, and they found, not surprisingly that most people had leftover

medicines at home. However, only one third of these people regularly returned their unwanted medicines to a pharmacy. The study confirms international findings that many people are not aware that medicines should be disposed of properly. Yet, these drugs are likely to end up in groundwater, where they can contaminate supplies. As Prof martin Cormican, Director of the Centre for Health and Environment at NUI Galway, explains, while these drugs may be present in low concentrations, people drinking contaminated water are subect to long term exposure. This is one of the issues that has been causing concern about resistance to antibiotics, and as other irish researchers have found, micro-organisms are adept at picking up genes that confer resistance to widely used antibiotics. many other drugs are biologically active, that, after all, is why they are effective, and they remain so long after they have been discarded. Surprisingly, Ireland has no national strategy for safe disposal of these medicines. As the NUI Galway researchers point out, “many retail pharmacies will take back unwanted medicines, but they do so on a goodwill basis and at considerable cost to them. Prof Cormican said that there has to be a national system in place, similar to the battery recycling scheme, and to back this up, people need to be better informed about safe disposal. 2nd year medical students at NUI Galway, Sarah Cormican (left) and Michelle Furey (right) found that most people do not know what to do with unwanted drugs. Photograph: Andrew Downes.

Deep drilling

Drillers on board the vessel, JOiDes resolution expect to penetrate two kms down into the ocean floor off Costa rica in a project that began earlier this year. Geologists from the French CNRS agency, explained that the aim is to reach rocks that underlie rapidly moving plates of the Earth’s crust. Heavy basalts form from cooling of upwelling magma, and when this drop in temperature is slow, a rock called gabbro is formed. By reaching this gabbro layer, the scientists hope to find out more about how oceanic ridges spread. Interest in the Pacific Ocean is high because the spreading of ridges there proceeds faster than areas such as the mid-Atlantic. About one fifth of the Earth’s ridges spread at up at speeds of about eight cm a year, and the material upwelling from these now constitutes about 30 per cent of the Earth’s crust. The ridge off Costa Rica, which started up 15 million years ago, is the fastest of them all, spreading at up to 20 cm a year

www.marine.ie

Boole papers

THE celebrated mathematician, George Boole, left a number of books and papers when he died in 1864. University College Cork is gathering these records to make these available to the public in digital form. George Boole’s work laid the foundations of modern computer languages, and during the nineteenth century he was Professor of mathematics at UCC. With the support of corporate sponsorship from EmC, over 4,000 items have gone into the digital archive during the past two years.

institute.mail@marine.ie

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ESF merger

The european Science Foundation and the european heads of Research Councils are at an advanced stage in negotiating a merger. eSF has had a strong influence on blue skies research back onto the Framework agenda, and eUROhORCs is an association of heads of research funding organizations in europe. Both organisations are working to support the vision of a common european Research Area. According to Marja Makarow, Chief Executive of ESF, a combined body would give science in europe a united voice.

UPFRONT

Getting high

SeCOnd-year medical students at NUI Galway in collaboration with Mountaineering Ireland have produced an information leaflet on high-altitude illnesses. The leaflet can be download from LIVE www.highaltitudemedicine.ie LINK Pictured at the launch of the leaflet at the  NUI Galway climbing wall are the 2nd year medical students who produced the leaflet (left-right): Christina Melon,  Oakville, Ontariao, Canada; Simon  Gordon, Sligo Town, Sligo; Kate Dinneen,  Barna, Galway; Dermot Nolan, Broadford,  Co. Clare David Flynn, Ballymote, Sligo; 

New species

Space dish

A 32 metre telecommunications dish, set up in 1984 for transatlantic calls, has been given a new lease of life as a space telescope. The dish at Elfordstown, Midleton in Cork, is being run by the National Space Centre in partnership with Cork Institute of Technology. The dish was decommissioned in the mid 1990s when transatlantic cables took over, and the project to redirect its focus on deep space is being organised by Dr Niall Smith, Head of Research at CIT and the Blackrock Observatory. Feeds from the dish are expected to be available to schools by September. Further work on equipping the dish to detect a variety of cosmic phenomena will follow next year. The radio telescope will provide support for training and research, and at 32 metres, is the largest available for educational purposes in Europe. Refurbishing the dish, valued at €10 million, has only cost less than €10,000, so as Dr Niall Smith from CIT observed, this was a very cost effective way of developing a world-class resource. When the feeds go live, school students will be able to tune in to radio signals from deep space. In the US, a dish of comparable size is operated by NASA in collaboration with the California Institute of Technology and the Lewis Centre for Educational Research. This can be viewed at http://www.lesiscentre.org/gavrt

Health claims

Hale Loofbourrow, Juneau, Alaska and  (climbing) Shannon Kelly, Camloops,  British Columbia, Canada. Photo by  Andrew Downes.

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ClAiMing that ingredients are good for health has become a standard marketing ploy, but according to the European Food Safety Agency, the benefits do not always exist. Juan Valverde from the Irish Phytochemical Food Network, notes that the European agency failed to find any proven benefits from a whole range of food products. Among these reviewed were almonds, quercetin, beta-carotene, lutein, alpha linoleic acid, monomeric flavan-3-ols from apples, and phosphorous. Claims were being made about controlling blood pressure, cholesterol, and tiredness. There were also claims about protection from UV damage and enhancing brain functions. However, the agency has rejected most of these claims on the grounds that no clear link could be found to show that dietary intake matched any of the stated benefits. Not all claims were shown to be lacking in support, and Juan Valverde mentions that the contribution of linoleic acid to brain development has been acknowledged. Dr Valverde’s update on the findings is at: http://www.ipfn.ie/news/2011/04/11/new-efsa-scientific-opinions-on-phytochemicals/ LIVE LINK

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While news about extinction is more usual, new species are still being discovered, among them a snub-nosed monkey, known to locals in Northern Myanmar, but completely unknown to science. The species, named Rhinopithecus strykeri, is unusual in having an upturned nose which causes it to sneeze whenever it rains. Biologist, Ngwe, followed up reports from hunters about an unusual long tailed monkey with big lips living in the eastern Himalayas. A small population of the monkey, known locally as ‘mey nwoah’ was found, and it was reported that to avoid sneezing they spend rainy days sitting with their heads tucked in between their knees. Other snub-nosed monkeys occur in parts of China and Vietnam, all considered to be in danger, but this new species is on the critical list due to increased logging activities in the once isolated region. Artists impression of the money by Martin  Aveling, Fauna and Flora International.


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UPFRONT

Gifts of nature

FrOgs and toads could help stroke, transplant and cancer patients keep blood vessel growth under control. Unrestricted growth of blood vessels can be a big problem during treatment of over seventy different diseases. the discovery of proteins that can control this growth, known as angiogenesis, was made by research led by Professor Chris shaw at Queen’s school of Pharmacy. the proteins occur in secretions of the Waxy Monkey Frog and the giant Firebellied toad. One of the problems with cancer tumours is that blood vessels continue to supply the oxygen and

nutrients they need for growth. the frog proteins can switch off this supply. One of the toad proteins can also work the other way around, switching on growth for a better supply, and this has the potential to help in wound healing. this could be of enormous help after strokes, transplants or heart attacks. as Prof shaw explained, angiogenis has been a target for research for the past forty years, but in spite of spending going into the billions, no one has come up with a drug that can effectively control the growth of blood vessels. Yet, such substances already exist in the natural world, and Prof shaw commented that we must seize this opportunity to produce a wonder drug.

Top, the Waxy Monkey Frog, and above, Prof Chris Shaw at Queen’s University.

Flyby views of Irish coast

taKE a tour around Ireland’s coastline. This Office of Public Works website has helicopter views of the coastline all the way around from Donegal to Louth. a map, which can be viewed on different scales allows users to pin point locations. a great resource for anyone interested in taking an oblique view of the coast. LIVE http://www.coastalhelicopterview.ie LINK

Low standards in high places

In BrItaIn a row has broken out over the ease at which overseas colleges have been able to have degrees validated through the University of Wales. Criticism of the University began to mount as reports began to appear last year in the Danish press that theology degrees were being offered for courses that did not meet Danish educational standards. the UK higher education watchdog body, the Quality assurance agency, had raised concerns about the situation, and criticism has since become much more serious, and public, with the disclosure in BBC news reports that the University of Wales had approved courses given in a college run by a pop star with bogus degree in Malaysia. the University has been validating overseas courses in a bid to boost income, and according to the BBC over 20,000 students abroad have signed up to these and hundreds of colleges around the world are involved. There are five other universities in Wales, and to them these very public revelations come as a damaging shock. Other universities throughout Britain are also upset that no proper checks were run on what was clearly a money making exercise. as the Professor of Higher Education Policy at Liverpool Hope University, roger Brown, commented, this lack of academic control in one national university is going to have a very serious impact on the standing of all the other colleges. the British Education Minister, Leighton andrews, has now stepped in, and he has ordered an enquiry into, not just of the obviously questionable courses, but of all 130 overseas links.

See Ireland’s Treasures in a whole new light. Free admission to the new Treasury Exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland , Kildare Street.

Kildare Street, Dublin 2, Ireland.

Open: Tuesday to Saturday 10am to 5pm. Sunday 2pm to 5pm. Closed: Mondays including Bank Holidays

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Family programmes & events for people of all ages. For information: T: (01) 6777 444 E: info@museum.ie

www.museum.ie LIVE LINK


AWArDING Science and MathS excellence + - = To qualify for the awards, schools were required

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Discover Science & Engineering (DSE) have announced that 472 primary schools have received an Award of Science and Maths Excellence as part of the Discover Primary Science and Maths (DPSM) programme. As the flagship project of the Discover Science & Engineering (DSE) awareness programme, the Discover Primary Science and Maths programme recognises the achievements of primary school children and teachers in the application of science and maths. Now in its seventh year, the programme has in excess of 3,000 schools registered on the programme.

Commenting on the Awards of Science and Maths Excellence, Peter Brabazon, Programme Director, Discover Science & Engineering, stated, “Encouraging primary-level students to take an active interest in science and maths is an essential part of helping them acquire the skills that will stand to them as they continue their education. On behalf of Discover Science & Engineering, I would like to commend all of the students and teachers who took part for their hard work and dedication. The capability and enthusiasm for science and maths among primary school students was very impressive this year and we look forward to another great year of Discover Primary Science and Maths programme.”

to keep a log of their science and maths related activities that they have undertaken throughout the year. Schools were awarded credit for visiting Discover Science Centres, inviting speakers to the school to talk about science and maths and displaying their work and other explorative activities. Credits are also awarded for taking part in a number of other DSE programmes including the Greenwave project (www. greenwave.ie), a mass science experiment tracking the arrival of spring across Ireland, as well as completing activities related to the Science Week 2010 theme (Our Place In Space), DSE’s annual national week long promotion of science and engineering. Abbott Ireland came on board this year as partners to the programme and very kindly sponsored 60 randomly picked awarding winning schools to receive a cheque for €100 for science equipment.

If your school would like to take part in the Discover Primary Science and Maths programme, please contact the office at 01 6073184. Training is being offered on a first come first served basis, where we will send a trainer to your school (min 10 teachers required) for an afternoon of hands on training in science & maths activities. Training must be completed by the end of October 2011. Please visit www.primaryscience.ie for further information on the Awards of Science and Maths Excellence and the Discover Primary Science programme. LIVE LINK

14 9 57 86 3 2


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Science ambassadors

do yoU work in science and would like to share your enthusiasm with the up and coming generation? If so, discover Science and engineering would like to hear from you. new recruits are needed for the Science ambassadors programme, an informal group of people with careers in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. Becoming a science ambassador can be as easy as you wish. at the most basic level, all you might be asked to do is provide some details for posting up on My Science Career website, but if you would like to do more, there are opportunities to participate in Science Week events or to become involved in promotion of science. To get started, simply email a few essential details about yourself to donna.mccabe@forfas.ie with ‘science ambassador’ in the subject line.

UPFRONT

MalaySIan science, engineering, and business students were at athlone in June to meet with their counterparts from the Institute of Technology. during a two-day symposium the aIT and Universiti Malaysia Perlis students heard experts discuss developments in biomedical science, computer networking, technology transfer, and other topics of common interest. Sharing of ideas and working in groups, said aIT President, Prof Ciarán Ó Catháin, are points often stressed in policy recommendations, and events such as this, help realise those aims.

Attracting skills

Under an agreement signed with the european Commission, researchers who want to live and work in Ireland will be given a fast-track visa. The hosting agreement scheme allows close relatives to accompany the researchers and apply for work permits. Since signing up, the Irish Euraxess office, which provides a one-stop-shop to facilitate the movement of researchers, has processed over 1,000 agreements with 30 research related organisations. The 460 researchers represent 15 per cent of the total Irish researcher population.

during an expedition to nepal, TCd Phd student, Paul egan, discovered two new poppy species. The late flowering Meconopsis autumnalis, and M manasluensis, are high altitude species endemic to the 8,156 metre Mount Manasul. according to TCd’s School of natural Sciences, this species rich region lacks an adequate floral inventory. Nepal is a biodiversity hotspot, and it is thought that over two per cent of the world’s flowering plants are native to this area.

rESEArCHEr mobIlITy For morE than a decade the European Commission has made significant efforts to emphasise the importance of researcher mobility as part of career development and creating a “single market” for research; a core part of the European research Area (ErA), recently renewed with the European Commission’s publication of the Innovation Union policy. many funding schemes like ErASmUS and marie Curie fund researchers’ mobility. In 2010 marie Curie celebrated its 50,000th fellow. However, there are significant challenges concerning the practicalities of mobility, including questions like; where can I find a job; how do I get health insurance where I am moving to; can I send my children to public schools; do I need a visa and work permit?

www.EUrAXESS.IE

LIVE LINK

In 2004, Ireland, with European Commission support, established the researchers’ mobility office and associated portal to provide free advice and guidance on these practical concerns. other nations established similar services. In 2008, the European Commission re-launched this initiative with the objective of providing a more coordinated and consistent European approach. Now called EUrAXESS, the Irish centre piece of this service is the EUrAXESS.ie portal. The portal is part of a European network of thirty-seven national EUrAXESS portals. All portals have a similar design and structure and are linked to the central EUrAXESS portal (http://ec.europa.eu/ euraxess), which features over 800 research vacancies from all EUrAXESS member states. Uniquely, the Irish portal allows both the researcher and research organisations to create profiles that link when vacancies of mutual interest arise. There are now 5,197 registered portal users who receive regular job and funding opportunities updates; registered users have made 375 job applications through the portal and conducted 3,419 organisation profile searches seeking information on research organisations and vacancies. The EUrAXESS Ireland office also administers a scheme that fast-tracks non-EU researchers’ immigration. This scheme allows the researcher’s immediate family to live in Ireland for the agreement’s duration and entitles their spouse and dependents to apply for a work permit. This is known as a ‘Hosting Agreement’ (Scientific researcher Visa); more information is available from EUrAXESS.ie. The office has processed 1,100 Hosting Agreements with thirty accredited organisations, and 460 researchers, approximately 15 % of the total Irish researcher population, are employed through a Hosting Agreement. In essence EUrAXESS Ireland is a brokerage that ensures those who are respectively seeking research talent and research opportunities find each other and can realise the objective of a European research Area.

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The Pulsar suPersTar

Right: Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Left: Emissions in the Crab Nebula powered from the central pulsar. NASA/ESA

seán Duke talked to one of the super-stars of Irish science

I

reland has just one Noble Laureate in science – the Waterford-born ‘atomsplitter’ Ernest Walton. However, many scientists believe there should be two. The other being Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the still working, Belfast-born 67-year old, who discovered pulsars – a new family of incredibly compact, tiny stars – back in 1968. At the time she made the discovery, Jocelyn was a 24-year old post-graduate student. She was also a woman. Those things still mattered in science in the 1960s, and might have helped explain why the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics, awarded for the pulsar discovery, went to Jocelyn’s male supervisor, Antony Hewish and his senior colleague Martin Ryle. Many astronomers are still unhappy about this decision and have openly suggested that Jocelyn should, at the very least, been a co-recipient of the Prize. That the two prize winners never felt the need to recognise Jocelyn’s work, is a scientific scandal.

Obstacles

It was far from certain that Jocelyn would attain the heights she has attained in science, and she had to overcome many

obstacles in her path. She was born in Belfast, but spent most of her first 13 years in Lurgan. She failed the ‘11 plus’ exam, the test that children take in Britain and Northern Ireland before entering secondary school. This exam is crucial as it usually determines whether a child is admitted to a ‘grammar school’ where the focus is on getting students to university. Her failure at the 11 plus wasn’t fatal, as she had been attending the Grammar School in Lurgan, and the school agreed to keep her on for a few years before she went off to a boarding school in England. However, she did admit much later that the failure ‘shook her’, and she didn’t chose to mention it until she attained the status of Professor. Looking back today, Jocelyn believes that the 11 plus curriculum at the time didn’t suit her, as she said there wasn’t any science in it. Her scientific ability was certainly obvious when she came top of her class in her first term in secondary school at Lurgan Grammar. However, before that, there was another hurdle to cross. That came when the girls and boys were segregated into two groups in her first year of secondary school. Jocelyn thought that the separation might have

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‘something to do with sport’, but was horrified when she realised that the boys were being brought to the science lab, while the girls were being packed off to learn about domestic science. It was the 1950s and girls in Lurgan, and all over Ireland, north and south, weren’t given any encouragement to do science. Jocelyn’s parents decided to ‘kick up a fuss’ and, as a result she was permitted to join the boys doing science, along with the daughter of a local doctor, and one other girl. It was a close call, and Ireland almost lost perhaps its most accomplished ever female scientist before she even had a chance to show what she could do. She finished out her two remaining years in Lurgan Grammar and then it was off to England. Jocelyn’s family were Quakers, and there was a family tradition of sending the children to Quaker schools in England. Jocelyn attended Mount School, in York. She recalls that it was good to get away from home, though traumatic to begin with. In England, in the fifties, girls were not discouraged from doing science, so it was a different atmosphere to Ireland. Jocelyn did very well in her studies, despite what she recalls as a mixed standard of science teaching. She made it through the roller-coaster of her primary and secondary school education to get accepted into Glasgow University to study science. There she did well enough to be accepted to do a PhD in the University of Cambridge, a truly world-class university, choc-a-block with Nobel prize winning scientists, then and now. She began her PhD in 1965, working under the supervision of the aforementioned Hewish. The aim of the research project she was involved with was to find quasars. Jocelyn describes quasars as being “big, big things like galaxies, but they are incredibly bright and they send out a lot of radio waves”. The idea was to search for quasars by looking at natural sources of radio waves in the cosmos using a telescope array. An array is a group of linked telescopes, and a special array was constructed for the project at a fouracre site at the Mullard Astronomy Observatory near Cambridge. Jocelyn got stuck into the nitty-gritty of getting the project up and running, and spent


her time initially banging stakes into the ground and connecting miles of copper wire. Finally, in July 1967, the array was ready.

Accidental

Jocelyn began the job of monitoring the sky for rapid fluctuations in radio waves that might indicate the presence of a quasar at a particular location. She had to read through literally miles of paper, and wade through mountains of data, searching for tell-tale signs of a quasar. On the 6th August 1967, a few weeks after the array came online, Jocelyn noticed something. She described the discovery that would change her life to this reporter in an interview in 2010: “It was totally accidental. I was doing the research project I had been set very conscientiously and happened across something unexpected. The analogy I use is imagine you are at some nice viewpoint making a video of the sunset and along comes another car and parks in the foreground and it’s got its hazard warning lights, its blinkers on, and it spoils your video. Well my project was looking at quasars, which are some of the most distant things in the universe. [quasars] are big, big things like galaxies, but they are incredibly bright and they send out a lot of radio waves, which is what I was picking up. [I was] studying these distant quasars and something in the foreground sort of went ‘yo-hoo’! - not very loudly shall we say it was a pretty faint signal, but it turned out after a lot of checking up, and a lot of persistence to be an incredible kind of new star, which we have called a pulsar pulsating radio star.”

“They are tiny as stars go, they are only about 10 miles across, but they weigh the same as a typical star so they are very, very compact. The radio waves were coming naturally from some kind of star. We picked up these pulses and they were so unexpected that the first thing you have to do is suspect is that there is something wrong with the equipment, then suspect there is interference and then suspect something else, gradually force yourself to believe that it is something astronomical and it’s out there in the galaxy. The excitement came when I found the second one, because that really then begins to look like this is a new population we’ve discovered and we’ve just got the tip of the iceberg.” Inside a few weeks Jocelyn had discovered three more radio wave sources that were behaving in the same way. This proved beyond doubt that here was a new, real and probably entirely natural phenomenon, though there was some talk – only partly in jest – about the possibility that these pulsating radio waves were being sent across the Universe by an alien intelligence. A paper in Nature, the renowned scientific journal followed and it was published on the 24th February 1968. The press interest was huge after the paper came out, and Jocelyn and other people in the lab did a series of newspaper, radio and television interviews. Somehow she managed to get back to finishing her PhD, which she did in September 1968. But her life had changed, and she had become an overnight scientific celebrity, still only in her mid twenties. Jocelyn said that the practical importance of her new found fame was that she never found it difficult to pick

Snowball Earth

COMPAreD to our more recent ice ages, the great freeze between 600 and 700 million years ago was much more severe. The entire globe is thought to have been covered by ice, and for a long time, scientists wondered how life can have survived this event, known as Snowball earth. Geologist, Dr Dan Le Heron, from the University of London, has questioned the assumption that all parts of the earth were in fact covered. In the Australian Flinders Mountain range of Australia, his team has found evidence to suggest that there were ice-free areas where animals were able to survive until conditions improved and they could repopulate the desolate world.

up a job when she was travelling around Britain with her husband, Martin Bell. He was a civil servant that regularly moved from city to city. Jocelyn followed him and worked part time for many years raising their son Gavin, who was born in 1973, and is also a physicist. The down-side of achieving fame and success at an early stage was – as Jocelyn said to this reporter – that people expected her to come up with amazing discoveries all the time. A discovery such as finding pulsars comes only about once per decade in the astronomical community as a whole, and so it is a bit hard, she suggested, to live up to such expectations. These days she continues to work as a Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at Oxford University where she is free to conduct research without too many other duties being imposed on her. Whatever she might do before she retires, her scientific legacy is secure. In 2010, a pulsar conference was held in Sardinia to honour her 45 years in science and to ‘christen’ a new radio telescope. A long-time colleague Australian pulsar researcher, Dick Manchester, was asked to deliver a speech at the conference, detailing Jocelyn’s contribution to science. He said: “I think Jocelyn’s fame is greater because she didn’t receive the Nobel Prize in 1974 than it would have been if she had. I believe that the furore that her lack of recognition caused resulted in a change of attitude by the Nobel Committee and I’m sure more widely as well, with a heightened awareness of the role of students in projects and the role of women in science.”

A boulder, scooped up, and then dropped by melting ice into disturbed sediments that have, over millions of years become solid rock. Evidence, such as this, shows that there must have been violent storms over areas of open sea during a time when most of the globe was frozen over.

The evidence is in the form of disturbed sediments, showing a feature known to geologists as hummocky cross bedding. This is a feature that can only be formed by violent storms crossing an

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open sea. Dr Le Heron’s results published in the scientific journal, Geology, are taken as clear evidence to show that extensive areas of ocean remained clear of ice during the Snowball earth era. These clear areas, he said, may well have allowed the life we see around now to survive on Earth.


PART NINE

THInkIng AHEAd

Continuing our series in which dr Veronica Miller explains what we know about the brain and how it works

P

rimordial earth was a perilous place with lava filled landscapes and desolate rocky plains. Primordial humans, or single celled bacteria as we were known, filled the warm pools on the edge of nascent seas. Their most important thoughts were to stay warm, get food and replicate. In many ways, the billion celled bodies we inhabit nowadays are no different. Except food, shelter, and heating are easily obtainable. This means our brains are freed from the shackles of survival, and can expand in ways never possible before.

Evolution of genius

In the future, there will be nothing to stop you creating your own genius brains. Back in the early 1970s in Hungary, Laslo Polgar, was convinced that all it took was hard work and a loving environment, to create the perfect environment for a genius to thrive in. Once his wife became pregnant, he had the perfect tool to try out his theory. His daughters Susan and her two younger sisters, Judit and Sofia, were trained as toddlers to play chess, and learned not only to excel but also love the game. In Laslo’s eyes, geniuses were made, not born. And essentially he was right, because Susan became the first female grand-master chess player in the world. And now, thanks to brain imaging, we are beginning to understand how it’s possible to build a genius.

Facing up to facts

When you meet somebody, it takes less than a millisecond for you to shuffle through the thousands of faces of folks you’ve met, to remember who they are. And it only takes a fraction of time longer for you to realize whether or not you owe them money. The part of your brain responsible for facial recognition, is the fusiform gyrus. Its found at the back of your head, nestled just behind your ears. It receives input from nerve fibers in your eyes, and stores millions of photographic images. This brain region, which evolved to help us tell friend from foe, is one of the speediest parts of our conscious brain. It’s a super-fast processor which translates complicated information, like our many dimpled wrinkled faces, into simple digestible patterns, categorizing us by our beards glasses and bad teeth. By breaking down complex details into simple patterns, we can process complex information, like faces, in milliseconds. Interestingly, when people used MRI scans to try figure out what made Susan Polgar a genius, they discovered that it was the fusiform gyrus that lit up when she was planning her genius chess moves. Essentially her father’s early training allowed her hijack the parts of the brain we normally use for facial recognition, and instead store and see patterns in complicated chess games in milliseconds. Almost all of us recognize hundreds of faces, and possess fast-processing fusiform gyri. If we too could hijack these pathways for super-fast thoughts,

then we too possess the potential for genius from birth. And if its possible to hijack normal neural networks to retrain our brains as we wish, then the brain possess a remarkable ability to remodel itself.

HAPTIC feet

Imagine if your heart was damaged beyond repair, and somehow you could train a spare kidney to move up to the chest cavity and become a fully functional new heart. In essence, retraining the brain, after an injury like a stroke is based on the concept that bits that were used for one function, like moving arms, or seeing, could be retrained to do other functions and compensate for the loss. This exciting new approach to how our brains work rests on a concept known as plasticity. If you watch children playing in a playground you’ll see that if one shoves the other, they’ll be pushed back. Neurons are no different. This simple resilience to provocation is being used to help brains heal after catastrophic injuries like strokes. Unsurprisingly younger neurons are best at fighting back. Years ago if stroke victims were paralysed it was assumed their limbs would never recover. However, researchers found that if patients are forced to push back slowly and think about making their limbs move, by shear stubbornness some movements can be restored. By forcing the brain to push a limb against a device, neurons can be coaxed to sprout nerve fibers and regrow into damaged areas. Engineers are developing devices, known as Haptic interfaces, from the greek word to touch, to help people “feel” their way into recovery. By attempting to push against levers, attached to what appear like highly sophisticated computer games, stroke victims can use their whole brain activity to focus rehabilitation on their damaged limbs, and help regain use of lost limbs.

Aha! A higher state of consciousness

Every now and then we all have a split-second of utter clarity. A flash when you suddenly understand who did it in a who-dunnit! Imaging studies have now revealed that the exact moment of sudden understanding occurs when left and right sides of your brain are totally synchronized. Usually we’re either right or left brainers. This harmonious activity allows your brain to maximize its processing and literally enter higher state of consciousness.

You really are on the same wavelength

Sometimes when discussing a film, you feel your friends aren’t really on the same page. Other times you meet a new person and find your interests in food and music are totally compatible. You feel you’re on the same wavelength and that’s probably true.

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Brain waves can be read by an electroencephalograph; EEG, and the four most prominent, distinguished by their frequency and amplitude, are alpha beta theta and delta waves or a,b, h and d waves in English. When our minds are particularly focused, Beta waves are dominant. When we’re pondering problems slower alpha waves are present, and when we’re creative theta waves are most apparent. The slowest waves are Delta waves, and these are associated with deep physical relaxation. If you are creative and your friends are focused then literally you could be on different wavelengths.

ONE SECOND

Moving mind over matter

Brain waves on EEG scans are generated because our brains, many ways are just very sophisticated batteries. The fact that our thoughts are electric has led Alpha researchers to try harness these electrical currents and use it to power or move other objects. And you may think Telekinesis is fodder for X-men fans, but we can move objects with our minds alone. Beta Computer scientists have generated clever caps covered in electrodes that can be used to read your thoughts and convert them into actions. At what they’ve called the brain-computer interface, sensors on Delta the skull cap detect levels of electrical activity in different areas of the cortex. This cortical activity is then translated into instructions to the computer. In a Altered states of mind virtual world all the user has to do is think In essence, different thoughts are about walking down the street, turning Gamma associated with different brain the corner or crossing the road, and the wavelengths. So if you could train character on the screen does likewise. But your brain waves to have particular patterns on an EEG, it’s at the moment the cap is only as good as the user. If a person possible you could make your brain more creative or calm and isn’t thinking clearly, the cap can’t translate the thoughts into contemplative. Interestingly, although modern science and clear actions. fancy imaging have driven this concept, people have actually been trying to train and tame their brain waves for thousands of years. Meditation is common across many ancient cultures. And it can actually influence the patterns of your brain waves. For example, during Zen meditation alpha waves are prominent. During deep Yogic meditation, the slow delta waves associated with physical relaxation are present. And during hyperconscious forms of mediation speedy brain waves up to 100Hz are produced. These super fast brain waves are rare and referred to as Gamma or hyper-gamma brainwaves. In fact, people who practice mediation on a regular basis have more hyper-gamma brainwaves than non-meditators. This means meditation isn’t just good for the soul it’s good for your synapses too.

Hypnosis- harnessing brain power

You might consider the watch-swinging antics of hypnotists little more than circus trickery. Yet, for some people hypnosis can be a mind changing experience. The use of hypnosis for therapy dates back to 19th century when it was used by the founders of psychiatry, Charcot and Freud. Hypnosis, works like alcohol to induce an extreme state of relaxation in people. But The Brain Gate unlike alcohol, it relies on people’s ability to become very focused on one thing. And evidence from EEG analysis shows that during hypnosis, brain wave patterns change, with the alpha waves most prominent. However, hypnosis doesn’t work for everybody. Not surprisingly, because alpha waves found during hypnosis are associated with creative impulses, so creative highly imaginative people are the most susceptible to hypnosis. In fact hypnosis might be as useful as a trip to the doctor for some people, especially when it comes to giving up bad habits like smoking.

Magnetic personalities

Aside from the influence of stimulants and sleeplessness we would like to think we’re in control of our thoughts. However, it is possible for somebody else to control your mind, simply by placing some magnetic devices on your skull. Transcranial brain stimulation (TBS) may sound like a Romanian zombie’s weapon. But, TBS is in fact a means of manipulating your brain activity, with the use of magnet fields, and without the need to drill through your skull and implant electrodes. Although TBS was discovered back in the 1980s it’s more recently gaining favour, and can help people with major depression function better. Essentially TBS, works by using a handheld device, much like a hair-dryer to your skull, placed directly above the brain region you wish to stimulate. The device sends out concentrated magnetic wave pulses which act to re-orientate and interfere with existing electromagnetic fields in that brain region. Placing it over the motor cortex can lead to pulses of arm twitching for example. Much like a magnetic masseur, TBS can then help relax or awaken neurons, and if coupled with the appropriate therapy, it can train the brain to help function better.

Thinking is doing

Another way to help broken brains work is to literally re-wire them. Taking this approach, a US technology company made a chip, which allow quadriplegics to control computer consoles with their minds. The chip called the Brain Gate — the gateway between mind and machine, is only 16mm2 and contains 100 silicon electrodes shaped like pins, which pick up electrical signals from the person’s brain. By simply placing the chip in the part of the brain which controls motor movements, aka the motor cortex, it is possible to harness a patient’s thoughts about moving, and feed these

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electrical impulses into a computer which can translate the signals into actual movements on the computer screen. This simple approach, which relies on a literally wiring up our brains to a computer, may mean that in the future we can manually mend broken minds.

Brain on a chip?

You mightn’t want to compete with Google when it comes to searching for forgotten facts. Yet, despite the massive advances in computational power in the past twenty years, computer processors are still many steps behind even the worst of our brains. Neurons can make thousands of connections, regenerate themselves and can learn. These highly desirable characteristics have yet to be found in computer processors, but researchers are trying to generate computer chips to harness the curious abilities of neurons. Biomodal chips are silicon chips, with neurons grown into them. By zapping the neurons with different levels of electrical impulses its possible to train the neurons to react to the impulses, and then with the use of a mini- transistor the electrical information can be translated back again. This way you can read and talk to the neuron, creating an interface between machine and mind.

Rat brains to fly planes

In Florida, biomedical engineers have cultured rat neurons on a 60 channel multi-electrode array which can record information from cells and also send information to them. Thomas DeMarse who works in this group, has interface his rat brain system with an F-22 fighter jet simulator. And he has been able to train his cells to manipulate the plane! By translating instructions for pitch and role angles which control the flight of the plane into high and low frequency electrical pulses, he has essentially used the chips to translate a normal flight manual into a kind of electrical Morse Code. Which means its possible to use rat brains to teach a computer how to fly a plane. Although whether passengers would be happy to hear the voice of that captain speaking is another story….

Brain tumours, a cell by many other names

During our developmental odyssey, from egg to embryo, our baby brain cells travelled from a simple spinal tube upwards and outwards, expanding multiplying and eventually making up the many folded areas of our brains. Essentially our adult brains contain millions of neurons, which interact in form of highly ordered chaos. Each cell connects and reconnects at lightning speed, regulated by growth factors and signals from other cells, telling them to stay connect and also stay put. And usually brain cells stay in place, happy to connect and reconnect with neighbours. But sometimes they start dividing and multiplying randomly and rapidly. After time one mutant cell will become an insatiable bundle of cells which rob nutrients from surrounding healthy cells, sap your energy and ultimately lead to your demise. These insatiable unstoppable cells are tumours.

Seek and destroy

It’s difficult to kill tumour cells, because essentially they are “normal” cells which have multiplied wrongly. So your immune system can’t recognize them as being problematic. However, scientists have found they can cure mice from prostate cancer by vaccinating them against the tumour cells, to help train your body to kill the cancers.

They simply injected artificially made antibodies against tumourous prostate cells into mice that already had prostate tumours. Instantly the mice generated T-killer cells which launched an attack on the antibodies and in the process they also started killing off the prostate tumour cells because they were similar to the antibodies. And this promising technique has even reduced prostate cancer cells in a clinical trial of 24 New York patients. This exciting discovery means that in the future it might be possible to vaccinate patients against brain tumours, rather than using chemo or radio therapy.

Could you do a brain transplant?

Heart, lung, and skin tissue can be transplanted from one person to another. So why not brain tissue? What if you could get the bit of Rory McIllroy’s brain to be super golfer? Aside from the ethical problems of obtaining another body to put your first brain into, you might wonder what’s stopping us from doing brain transplants. Essentially, even though we may be friendly creatures, our bodies are designed to reject foreign invaders. Every cell in your body is coated with a unique fingerprint of proteins which allows your immune system to tell self, from non-self. This means that if you implant new brain cells, there is a good chance that your immune system will destroy them before they have a chance to survive. So the best chance you have now is to have somebody build new brain cells from other parts of your body, or use cells that can be trained to become your new brain cells.

Repairing damaged tissue

You’ll have noticed that your eyes don’t become ears and your nose doesn’t become toes as you age. Most of your organs stay put. Once cells become specialized to form a specific type of tissue, normally they stay that way. However some cells, particularly those in developing embryos have the unique magical capacity to become any kind of tissue you want — with the correct molecular coaxing. In fact, right now it’s possible to make stem cells, which can develop into fully functioning brain cells. In California, clinical trials have already been initiated to see if these cells can help people recover after stroke. And in the UK a Guildford based company ReNeuron got permission this year, to treat stroke patients with ReN001 a neural stem cell line, and help improve recovery. Although we don’t fully why new stem cells work better than our preexisting cells, we are getting some insights from animal studies. Researchers in Stanford California have found that stem cells can help stroke-prone mice recover after a week. In the rat brains they found new white matter and axonal connections, alongside higher levels of vascular growth factors. These findings in rats are important, because if we can discover what chemicals stem cells release to help recovery after stroke, it may be possible to treat such injuries in the future using a specialized chemical cocktail rather than expensive stem cells.

Legal limbo

Whether or not you believe stem cell therapy will work, the potential uses and hope associated with stem cell therapy has way outlaid scepticism surrounding the science. And whether or not stem cells in a petri-dish are fated to become lost limbs, hearts or helper T cells all depends on the environment provided. With the right mixture of growth factors, inhibitory molecules, pH and temperature, all kinds of new cells can be fostered from one parent. However, here in Ireland, with an

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Right now scientists are trying to figure absence of an environment suitable for out how to retrain the immune system, embryonic stem cell research, it’s likely or distract it from the myelin, so that the our progress will be stalled in legal limbo. axons can recover, and signals get sent the Like cells cryogenically preserved on a right places. Part of this method also relies phase of growth arrest, researchers in on telling growing axons how to start Ireland cannot avail of new stem cell growing again. And part of this process technologies, because the fate of the involves removing the stop signalsundifferentiated cells has yet to be legally including the appropriately named “nodetermined. go” protein, to help neurons reconnect. The Irish Stem Cell Foundation is pushing for better recognition of the need for legislation for this issue. Dr Unblocking the brain Stephen O’Sullivan, a leading pioneer Not all advances in neuroscience are of such research in Ireland who recently reliant on complicated engineering. One left for warmer climates in the US, has method of removing blood clots from the said the status of the research is “very brain is a simple tiny cork-screw device. disillusioning”. Efforts were made back Glial stem cells. Image: Robert Sicko. This corkscrew made by Concetrics, is in 2005 to generate legal guidelines for inserted through the femoral artery in the the government on stem cell research; groin. From here it is threaded up to the however, thanks to economic and political upheavals it has been carotid artery in the neck and from there it can rove around the put on the back-burner. brain’s blood supply until the blood clot is found. Once found the blood vessel can be uncorked — and normal blood flow can resume. A REMEDI for the brain. It’s not all bad news for stem cell research in Ireland though. In Galway at the Regenerative Medicine Institute (REMEDI) led by Time travelling brains Prof. Tim O’Brien, scientists are re-engineering cells, to generate You may wonder if we could freeze our brain, and our new living tissues. perception of things changing, then we could also freeze time? Deep inside your breastbone, inside the When we go asleep our brains stop their bone-marrow, thousands of immune cells conscious activity. Yet when we wake up are generated every day, to help you fight they can get back on track within seconds. Myelin off germs. These new cells, also known Perhaps if we managed to stay in this state sheath as mesenchymal stem cells, can divide of sleep for hundreds of years and wake up into all kinds of different connective and again, we could travel through time — albeit immune cells. And thanks to some elegant very slowly. biological engineering, at REMEDI they can During the night, our hearts pump be engineered into many other types of cells, essential nutrients into the brain to keep including the oligodendrocytes which make ticking along. So if you wanted to keep your the fatty myelin that allows axons to fire, and brain in suspended animation, you’d need reconnect nerves in the spine after car crashes. to supply adequate oxygen and food to keep working on a low level throughout your long sleep. If you could, then perhaps you MS-taken identity could sleep and wake up Rip Van Winkle style a hundred years Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a disorder which makes it difficult later in a brand new shiny body. for people to move. This is because the long axons which shoot At the moment the best bet offered to would be time signals from the brain to muscle fibers aren’t properly insulated travellers is cryogenics. Cryogenically freezing your head with fatty myelin sheaths. Electrical signals don’t fire properly literally means putting your brain in the and people lose the ability to move. Some deep freeze until such a time as science can people think perhaps the body’s own immune re-animate your mind. If you consider the system mistakenly recognizes proteins on the desiccated and unpalatable state of micromyelin sheath as a foreign invader, and slowly wave dinners hiding at the bottom of your and progressively tries to eat away at it. own deep freeze — you mightn’t want to go In order to kill invading cells, your body for the cryogenic option. needs to be able to tell them apart from existing cells. If your arm was sore, you wouldn’t cut it off. Likewise if your brain is damaged, your Sage advice. immune system knows better than to kill off In the Middle Ages people thought Sage large chunks of your brain-cells. Normally that is. was good for the brain, and wise old people However for patients with MS, their killer- t-cells were known as sages. Fast-forward a few think that myelin is a foreign body and start to hundred years and thanks to modern science produce antibodies to kill it off. Estrogen, the we’ve purified the active ingredients in sage, female sex hormone helps regulate antibody body fed them to people and tested its effects on production. It’s thought this is the reason women memory. True to form, the folks who had are more likely to develop MS than men. In fact sage performed better on memory recall tests when women are pregnant and estrogen levels are than those who had none. Funnily enough, lower MS symptoms are much reduced. whether its fish-oils, or pharmaceuticals like


aspirin, the latest fads in brain research often have their roots in advice passed down through the ages. Years ago, with a slice it and see approach, our understanding of the brain came from looking from the outside in. Now thanks to new molecular, genetic, magnetic and electrical probing techniques we can examine it from the inside out. Integrating both approaches may prove essential to our future understanding. But sometimes not accepting everything we learn is equally as important.

mean better brains — until cranial measurements revealed this wasn’t true. Dead cells were thought to mean lost memories, until Haptic and stem cells gave us new hope. Neuroscience, like our brain, is constantly evolving and thrives on our ability to question everything we learn. And thanks to new technology and better ways of sharing information, the full story of our brain is just now beginning in earnest.

Believe it or not

Veronica Miller has a doctorate in neurobiology from Newcastle University, a Masters in Science Communication from DCU and a degree in Biochemistry from TCD. Previously she worked on “Scope” a popular science TV series for teenagers. Currently Veronica is working in the Wadsworth Center, New York State Department of Health laboratories, researching how environmental toxins contribute to risk of disease from womb to tomb, with a focus on autism, Parkinson’s disease and dementia.

Once it was thought neurons never divided, now we know some neurons never stop dividing. Once it was thought neurons contained only one type of neurotransmitter, now we know they’ve many. Once it was a rule that brain circuitry was fixed at birth, but now we know better, and that brains can be remodelled in all kinds of ways. Bigger brains were thought to

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Blooming good results Researcher, Eoin Gillespie, told Tom Kennedy that there is a lot to be gained by harvesting algal blooms.

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s satellite views of the Atlantic show, blooms of algae, produced by explosive growth of these tiny single celled organisms, are quite common. There are many species of algae, some producing the red tides that are a worry to shellfisheries, but others are a potential source of food and chemicals. At Letterkenny, Eoin Gillespie is among those working on algae at the Institute of Technology. “They do a lot of marine research at Letterkenny,” he said, and algae are of big interest, and not just because of their high growth rate. Compared to their body mass, said Eoin, algae produce a very high amount of oils. “These are fatty acids, and they range from short chains to more complex forms such as Omega 3.” “People often eat fish for these oils,” he said, “but the fish don’t actually makes these oils, they come from algae.” So, why not go to the source direct, and this indeed is what the researchers at Letterkenny aim to do. “Our interest is in cutting out the middle-man,” said Eoin. This is just one of the benefits that we can expect to get from paying more attention to algae. “People are looking at them for possible bio-diesel production, and at the moment, algae are being cultivated to provide feed for fish and shellfish hatcheries.” The fact that algae can bloom, also means that it is relatively easy to grow these organisms in bulk. For fish farm feed, this is already

Eoin Gillespie, and above, algae are an important part of the ocean’s phytoplankton. Below, algal blooms showing up in satellite images like this one captured by NASA’s Aqua in 2006. an established practice. “This is being done at a fairly large scale using lights, polythene bags and temperature control.” The cultures are seeded from carefully selected strains, and as Eoin explained, researchers are spoiled for choice. There are many different types of algae around the Irish coast, many of which have not yet been described. Often, the substances that are of most value to us are the chemicals produced in response to stress. When cultured on an industrial scale, imposing stress, can bring up the yield. Science has always been important to Eoin. “At home I was always watching programmes about science,” he said. How did that go down? “Rather well,” he remarked. “My father is a laboratory technician.” Eoin is interested in algae, but, as he explained, his first love is chromatography. This is the analytical technique that reveals the detailed chemical composition of any sample, and in this case, the samples are coming from algae. As a technique chromatography has come a long way in the past few years, and Eoin first became hooked on it while studying science at DCU. At college, he said, the focus was on fundamental science, and while he found this satisfying, his real wish was to begin applying this knowledge. Through the IRCSET Enterprise Partnership Scheme, Eoin realised that ambition. Working on algae could keep Eoin busy for a long time to come, but as he remarked, “chromatography is always going to be my first call.”

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REPORTING FROM ESOF TURIN

RecoveRing fRom a destRuctive past

since gaining independence, the inhabitants of Kazakhstan have been striving to clear up the nuclear mess left by the soviets. tom Kennedy reports that in spite of intensive testing, the republic has made a remarkable recovery.

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ar from bringing an abrupt halt to the development of nuclear weapons, the horrific, and many say unnecessary and barbaric obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki simply triggered a race to build bigger and more lethal bombs. The wars that had swept across Europe and Asia had been fought with almost unbelievable ferocity, civilian deaths counted for nothing, yet it was widely accepted that the best way to achieve, not so much peace, as balance of power, was to outgun the enemy, thus locking the world into what almost became a suicide pact. Hostilities did not end with the defeat of Germany, and indeed, one of the primary causes of World War II continued to fester like an infected sore as the Iron Curtain came down. In the uneasy period that followed, the Great Powers vied with each other to be ahead in the ability to unleash hell on earth, and during the 1950s and into the 1960s, hundreds of bombs, many of far greater magnitude than those used on Japan, were set off in saber rattling tests. Such was the secrecy surrounding these developments in what became known as the “nuclear deterrent” that when the post-war reactor at Sellafield in the UK went on fire, the US military refused to help on the grounds that their own

security would have been compromised by any release of information. In the US and the UK, nuclear weapons were being developed within societies that were not really keen on secrecy, and indeed there were widespread ban-the-bomb protests, but in the Soviet Union, there was never any question of sharing detailed information with civilians, and the public was seen as having no right to know what was going on. As Mukash Burkitbayev from the Al-Kazak University in Kazakhstan explained during last year’s European Science Open Forum event in Turin, the programme of nuclear weapon development was, in fact, far more extensive than most people in the USSR would ever had reason to suspect. The main reason why so many tests remained such a secret is that they were carried out in one of the remotest regions of what was then part of the USSR. Kazakhstan, is a vast landlocked country, larger than the whole of Europe, its 16 million inhabitants are widely dispersed, and there are few large towns. To the military authorities, these few wandering people, often less than 6 per square kilometre, and their sheep grazing the steppes, were just a nuisance that could easily be ignored.

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With the collapse of the USSR, these people began to assert their independence, and as Mukash Burkitbayev explained, they have had to come to terms with this destructive legacy. One of the problems, he said, is that records, if they ever existed at all, have been lost or deliberately destroyed, but even so, the numerous test sites can be seen clearly in satellite views. Throughout Kazakhstan, there were six test sites, and 87 craters pock mark the ground. The Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site, in the north east of the country, is 150 km east of the town, now known as Semey, and many of the tests were carried out within about 50 km of Kurchatov city, so the area was far from being, as the Soviets claimed, “uninhabited.” Testing began in the 1950s with a freefall H bomb that would have released a lot of contamination. Locals had no idea of what was going on, and there are accounts of villagers nearby being advised to lie down just before this blast was set off. Many underground tests followed, typically set off at depths varying from 200 to 600 metres, and while these were, in effect capped by overlying rock, they would have caused widespread contamination of ground water. So many


explosions were set off, and of such enormous intensity, that some mountains, when seen from above, seem to be covered by snow. This is not snow, explained Mukash Burkitbayev, but ground, broken and disturbed by explosions so powerful that they lifted the surface by two or three metres. One prominant feature in the landscape is Lake Chagan, a half a kilometre long hole known as the Atomic Lake, created by a blast in 1965, which amazingly, was stocked by locals with fish soon after it formed. Perhaps more amazing, is the fact that these fish have been declared by international experts in radiation, as safe to eat. In spite of the terrible pounding that the landscape received, most of the area, except for some notable hot spots, appears not to have been sterilized to the extent that many experts would have predicted. Considering the intentionally lethal nature of some weaponry tests, this is quite surprising. In one series of tests, low flying aircraft seeded the ground with nuclear waste to determine if high levels of radioactivity could act as a barrier against the advance of an invading enemy. How many of these tests were carried out? No one knows. If this seems bad, consider another series of tests in which radioactive waste from reprocessing plants, was hand-pumped into tanks containing sticks of gelignite, which were then set off to explosively disperse radioactivity. Locals were never told about these bizarre experiments, so they continued to bring in animals to graze. As Mukash Burkitbayev commented, these secret tests cast a deep shadow over Kazakhstan, but, as he added, it is all to easy to paint a dismal picture. What is important to know, he said, are the facts. When people become concerned about radioactivity, he said, they attribute every single abnormality and disease to this form of contamination, and in Kazakhstan it is no different. That many suffered and died as a result of exposure is not in doubt, but the important thing now is to distinguish the facts from the fiction. In Kazakhstan, visitors are often led into museums displaying grotesque deformities, yet these are often the sort of unfortunate disorders that afflict every society, and have no connection to radioactivity. The republic, independent since 1991, has great mineral wealth, uranium and oil are abundant, but to develop these resources, the country needs to escape from its past. Some of the richest

Between Europe and Asia, Kazakhan is a big country with a relatively small population of 16 million and the capital, Astana has 700,000 inhabitants.

The National Nuclear Centre for Radiological studies is at Kurchatov, formerly one of the secret cities of the Soviet Union. resources happen to be in areas blasted by testing, and to determine just how much permanent damage had been done, an international team of experts, including Luis Vintro from University College Dublin, and Nicholas Priest from Atomic Energy in Canada, worked with local scientists to conduct a six year long fact-finding study of the area. Apart from concerns about safety, one of the worries was that if highly radioactive material was left lying about, a black market would develop to supply buyers from countries that aspired to join the nuclear club. The results of the study came as a great surprise, for the long term damage, while serious, was much less of a problem than everyone had been led to expect.

SCIENCE SPIN Issue 47 Page 17

Apart from being able to give reassurances that suspect areas are now within or below recognised safety levels, and team were able to identify where real problems still exist, and perhaps most valuable of all, was the setting up of a modern radiological laboratory, the National Nuclear Centre at Kurchalov, which can continue to provide advice and take action when and where necessary. During the height of activities, and for a period afterwards, hardly any attempt was made to assess the impact of radioactivity on inhabitants in towns or villages, and in remoter parts, where there were no doctors anyhow, deaths from radiation sickness would not have been noted on any official record. As happened after Chernobyl, locals just got on with their lifes, and for some, this meant freedom to go down into the deep shafts which had been made for numerous underground tests. In these tunnels there were rich pickings in cables and other materials, abandoned by the Soviets following tests. No one knows what became of the people who retrieved these materials, but the ground around tunnel entrances still remains far more radioactive than the surroundings. It can only be assumed that many of those who went back into these tunnels paid a very high price for any profit they might have made. An unknown quantity of material disappeared into the black market, and in a bid to halt these activities, entrances were sealed off. While areas within just a few metres of these hot spots were found to be safe, elevated levels of radioactivity can persist underground, and because of this, groundwater is still at risk from contamination. Drainage from these tunnels has been found to he high in tritium, and while some streams on the surface were found to be unsafe, the scientists who were conducting the surveying, were happy to go swimming in the Atomic Lake. The low level of radioactivity in areas considered to be at high risk, took everyone by surprise. Even around the craters, the measured levels expressed as milligrays, were typically in the region of 7, yet there are large areas of the world where the average is 100 or more milligrays a year. These findings came as a great relief to the authorities in Kazakhstan. Animals had continued to graze in these areas, and there was now no need to panic about contamination entering the food


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UPFRONT

chain. It was also safe to explore and map plumes from five explosions that started out the extensive mineral resources that with a ground level atomic bomb in 1949. lay within the test areas, thus unlocking a As material from these plumes came key to economic development. down, hot spots were created, and one of thewith towns, where exposure was measured While the impact locals was being A 450 million yearon old Crustacean, complete fossilized soft ignored, the Soviet military authorities at 1.6 grays, was evacuated. There are parts, has been found in Herefordshire. One of the scientists were well aware the dangers, different measurements involved in theofdiscovery, Profand David Siveter from the University for radioactivity, one grayso would produce the Mukash Burkitbayev made themade wry the 5mmbut of Leicester, said that what long fossil special comment thatittests alwaysun-named species, equivalent of one is not that is a were previously but that the joule soft of energy per and twocan would keep a 100 watt conducted when wind was parts have beenthe preserved soblowing well that eyeskilogram, and the antennae towards China. be made out. The Chinese who had a test site close to the border, simplyflata, waited The fossil, named Nasunaris belongs to the same group until the wind turned before setting of descendants are common as water-fleas and shrimps. Their their ownindirty today lakesbombs. and oceans, and geologists often use the fossils as indicators Although there is little in the official of past climates. record, some details are known about two towns that image were exposed to radioactive Internal of the fossil showing the soft parts and eyes. Image: David J. Siveter, Derek E. G. Briggs, Derek J. Siveter and Mark D. Sutton.

An old water flea

Bedrock of history

JERUSALEM’s fate was determined by the underlying geology. At the annual Geological Society of America meeting last October, Michael Bramnik from Illinois University explained that underground passageways in the karst limestone enabled King David to take the city. Water was drawn from the Spring of Gihon, which lay just outside the city walls. David’s soldiers climbed down into the spring and by tunnelling under the walls got access to the city.

Website: www.gsi.ie E-mail: gsisales@gsi.ie

bulb going for a few seconds. That might not seem a lot, but two grays would cause sickness and hair loss, and four would be lethal. With the levels recorded from these two towns, there must have been a significant increase in cancers, but who was going to put this on record? In one of the towns no one had seen a medical doctor in three years, and there was just one vet. While no one knows how many people died or became ill as a result of these tests, there is some comfort in the knowledge that this man-made blight belongs to the past. The mushroom cloud rising from a explosion at the test site in 1949.

Later, one of David’s successors, King Hezekiah, fearing that the Assyrians would take Jerusalem using the same approach, rerouted the water into the city via a 550 metre long tunnel. It proved to be a good decision, for in 701 BC, Jerusalem was the only city that the Assyrians failed to take. Water still remains a major factor in shaping modern history in the region, and Michael Bramnik said that when he went in search of hydrological maps for other towns and settlements he was often rebuffed with a claim that such maps do not exist.

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SPIN ACTIVE APPLIED STI

Sleep detection

AS anyone who drives long distances knows, dropping off to sleep at the wheel is all too easy. Even though truck drivers have to take regular breaks, the danger of dozing off, especially on those boring highways remains quite high. A device, developed by researchers at Tyndall in Cork, could prevent this happening by detecting any change in a driver’s breathing rate. The microchip sensor can also detect potentially fatal changes in people at risk from breathing difficulties, and it may have a role in monitoring babies for sudden death syndrome. According to Tyndall, the microchip consists of an ultra-wide-band pulse radar, and it operates without any need to be in contact with the person. Dr Domenico Zito, who led the development team, said the device has A chalcid wasp considerable potential for monitoring of respiratory diseases, and as it can (Trichogrammatidae) in Ethiopian generate a flow of data over a period of time, doctors to amber, are bodybetter length equipped 0,6 mm make observations.

Window into the ancient past

A REMARKABLY detailed snapshot of the Cretaceous period has been preserved amber. Amber, Waste notin want not almost as clear as glass, is fossilized resin, the sticky exuded by pine trees.a lot on imported fuel, yet has AS hAS oftensubstance been noted, Ireland spends A team of twenty researchers from Germany, France, According Austria, to Siemens, the capacity to cut this cost by saving energy. Ethiopia, Italy, the UK and USA, have been examining the 95 million energy savings of up to fifty per cent are possible on many of our existing year old plants, insects, nematodes, fungi, and even bacteria encased buildings without having to make a big investment on retrofitting. Liam in Ethiopian amber. The amber was found within sandstone from the Mulligan from Siemens, told aInconference on Smart Cities held in Dublin, northwestern plateau of Ethopia. reporting their initial findings the consumption of energy in buildings here,now at 350 in that the journal PNAS, the researchers explain that they havekWh an per square metre, is considerably higher than anwoodland. average of 250 for 30 cities unprecedented window into a Cretaceous This waskWh a time abroad. “During the boom ” he “a significant number of buildings when the first flowering plantsyears, began tosaid, appear. Two of the cheaply scientistswith involved, Svojtka and for Norbert were built little Matthias or no consideration energy efficiency or Vávra, from the University of Vienna, explained thatan thirteen sustainability. Some of them are appalling from energyinsect perspective.” families have been said identified so far. Thesea include hymenopterans, Liam Mullins that €250 million year could be saved on government thrips, barklice, zorapterans, and remains moths beetles. buildings alone, and retrofitting could of easily beand covered by the savings. During the lifetime of these animals, Ethiopia was part of the ancient continent, Gondwana. As the researchers pointed out, amber from this region is rare, adding greatly to the value of the fossil record. Until now the most significant Cretaceous amber deposits came from North America and Eurasia.

Innovation

APPLIED research in cloud computing is to get €5 million in support under plans announced in May by Minister, Richard Bruton to boost innovation. In addition to the support for cloud computing, €6 million is to go into a research centre for energy and the smart grid, and €44 million is to go to researchers leading life science, ICT and energy projects. In cloud computing, software programs and other resources do not have to reside on individual machines, but can be accessed on demand. Cloud computing is expected to grow rapidly, and with theit development better and faster causes a severeofinfection. Acquired connections, Ireland could become a significant player in provision of services. resistance to antibiotics is making it difficult to keep these fungal On energy research, hosted by UCD in partnership with MEDICAL implants, suchaascluster cathersis to be more attacks under but 25 as the Cork and Eirgrid, prosthetics can saveIntel, lives,Ericsson, but they Siemens ESB, Bord Gáis, and othercontrol, partners. industry researchers report the journal, can also become an unintended host partners are reported to have committed an additional €2.5 in million in funding anothercompanies pathogen could for fungal infections. over the coming five Thehe years. yeast, For some time,Microbiology, power producing have provide a solution to that problem. Candida albicans, can form biofilm grid structure been pointing out that thea existing cannot meet future demands, The bacterium, Pseudomonas which is difficult to eradicate, and and more flexibility is needed for Ireland to eruginosa, become aninvades exporter of energy. burn wounds, so as researchers at University College The €44 million support for leading researchers will to 44 Principal Investigators, it is seen as a troublesome pathogen. Cork report, this is the most common mainly working in life sciences, ICT, and energy. These projects involve a high However, as the researchers found, hospital-acquired infection. levelNormally, of industry participation with 23 companies already on board as partners. it inhibits the growth of Canida the yeast is not a

Blocking infections

problem, but in certain circumstances

albicans.

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A wasp, just under half a cm long, from the famiuly Mymarommatidae. Naturhistorisches Museum Wien

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DAvID Byrne, NUI Galway research student in engineering, came second from a shortlist of 60 abstracts submitted to the Institute of Structural Engineers Young Researchers Conference. David’s project involved determination of shear and load transfer in flat slabs, formed with a void to reduce weight and cut down on material costs. For the project, 160 gauges were installed on one of the slabs in the new engineering building at NUI An 8mm long member of the Thysanoptera, Galway. The gauges allowed for thunder fly, family. Naturhistorisches monitoring during construction and Museum Wien in everyday use when the building was completed. Canida albicans biofilm under attack. The fungal growth on the right has been Water technology attacked by Pseudomonas. Confocal The technology behindMcAlester. microscope image, Gordon

managing water is covered in a new edition of a text book Dr John Morrissey, who led the research team, that “if we written by Profcommented Nick Gray from can inhibitory strategy theexploit Centrethe for same the Environment, that bacterium P aeruginosa uses, TCD.thre Water Technology, an then we might be able to design drugs introduction for environmental that can be used as antimicriobials to scientists and engineers has disperse yeast biofilms as they form.” become a standard textbook in He also said that it might be possible to courses around the world, and incorporate such inhibitory drugsisinto now in its third edition. It is also the implants. theThe third book next step,on hewater said iswritten to determine what kind of chemicals are by Prof Gray. being bacterium, and More produced details at by thethe dedicated to discover how and where it targets website: www.irelandswater.com the yeast.

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Treating resistant bacterial infections

Classical antibiotics have proven to be safe and efficient, however, multidrug-resistant bacterial pathogens such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MrSA) and Enterobacteriaceae can be resistant against these and other agents often used as the last line of effective antibiotic treatment. researchers at rCSI have developed a technology allowing the versatile and reliable conjugation of a classical antibiotic to a host defence peptide, based on a cleavable linker. The disconnection of these agents can be selectively triggered by the main mechanism of bacterial resistance which is conserved in multidrug resistant pathogens. Combining the activities and assets of classical antibiotics and host defence peptides in this way may lead to effective new options for the treatment of resistant infections. For more information please contact dr Aoife Gallagher aoifegallagher1@rcsi.ie www.rcsi.ie/technologiesforlicense

Treatments for diarrhoeal diseases

diarrhoeal diseases represent a huge global burden; in developing countries infectious diarrhoea kills 2.5 million children annually while in Western societies diarrhoea is a feature of many intestinal disorders including infectious diseases, inflammatory bowel diseases and celiac disease. rCSI studies into epithelial cell fluid transport have revealed a number of potential therapeutic approaches to diarrheal disease. As a result these new therapeutic options, which directly target intestinal epithelial transport processes, should provide more specific and safer approaches to treat diarrhoeal diseases. For more information please contact dr Aoife Gallagher aoifegallagher1@rcsi.ie www.rcsi.ie/technologiesforlicense LIVE LINK

SPIN ACTIVE APPLIED STI

Education export

OvErSEAS students are reported to bring in €900 million a year, and the Government aims to double these numbers by 2016. As part of this drive, India has been targeted. More than 10,000 Indian students go abroad to study every year, and of these about 1,000 come to Ireland.

Safer catheter

A CAThETEr that allows skin to seal it in to prevent infection, has been developed by Marvao, a company established in 2006 at the GMIT campus. Clinical trials are now in progress at University hospital Galway for the product which is expected to solve a worldwide problem in preventing pathogens from entering the body. Catheter related blood infections are a serious, and sometimes fatal consequence of long term treatments that require insertion of a catheter.

Research spend

FIGUrES released by Forfas show that business spending on r&d was €1.9 billion in 2009. Preliminary estimates for 2010 show a small drop, to €1.8 billion. These figures represent all sectors. Irish businesses spent €563 million on r&d in 2009, and it is thought that this will have increased to €583 million in 2010.

Exchange

Bioengineering

WhEN joints are damaged, through injury or disease, a considerable potential may still exist for self-repair. At TCd, dr daniel Kelly has been looking at how cells can be isolated and reinserted to regenerate damaged tissues. Moving joints have a limited ability to recover from injury, and often damage leads to arthritis. dr Kelly’s research concentrates on developing a cost effective way to help the cells themselves to make the repairs. Last year, dr Kelly was awarded a European research Council grant worth €1.5 million to support this project. Such awards are only granted for exceptional work, and less than ten per cent of the researchers who apply receive this support. In this work, mesenchymal stem cells are isolated from the injured joint and these are then cultured in a hydrogel containing a growth promotor. An important aim of dr Kelly’s work is to get these cultures to grow into functional tissues that can be implanted in damaged joints.

UNdEr an EU scheme, start-up entrepreneurs are being offered support to benefit from experience abroad. The aim of the Erasmus Young Entrepreneurs Programme is to match start-ups with experienced SME owners in various parts of Europe. More than 500 entrepreneurs so far have been matched up to established SMEs, and in April the programme was extended to Ireland. Participants benefit from six months experience with established firms. More information at: www.dlrceb.ie/eye LIVE LINK

SCIENCE SPIN Issue 47 Page 20


SPIN ACTIVE APPLIED STI together they form part of an adhesives research group at uCD. With this group, said Michael, there is lots of interaction with students, specialists, industry and the university’s polymer group. Adhesives are of big interest to this group as polymers are often bonded together as composites. these composites are often stronger than metal, lighter, and free from corrosion so they have become common, and we are going to see a lot more of them in new products. “I was always interested in finding out how things work,” said Michael, and at school in Belvedere, he was strong on mathematics, and as he remarked, “I was a bit of a handyman at home.” Deciding to study engineering at UCD, he said, was a natural progression. He found great satisfaction in working on computer modelling, and his aim is to stay in that field. Modelling, he said, is generic in that it can be applied across a number of disciplines, and while he is currently applying his skills to the behaviour of nanoparticles, his future career could lead him into other fields. Michael made a deliberate choice to work with open source software, and he explained that this keeps his overheads low while giving him a lot of flexibility in the application of programs. Whether or not Michael continues working on modelling adhesives is not a big issue, and he is not too concerned about crossing the academic-industry divide provided the work continues to be stimulating and interesting. One of the big benefits of conducting research under the Enterprise Partnership scheme is that Michael can feel at home in an academic or an industrial environment, and indeed had no problem with combining research with teaching. “Teaching and research go hand in hand,” he said. “If you don’t have one, you can’t have the other.”

Michael Leonard

Getting stuck with science Nuts and bolts are becoming less common because adhesives are often a lot better at holding components together. Michael Leonard, who is working for his PhD at uCD, explained that unlike bolts and rivets, which act as a focus for strain, adhesives distribute the load evenly over an entire surface. under the IRCsEt Enterprise Partnership scheme, Michael conducts his research in partnership with Henkel, owners of the well-known Loctite brand. His aim is to find out how nanoparticles can boost adhesive performance. Incorporation of nanoparticles, he said, can increase bond strength from ten to thirty times, so they are of enormous interest to manufacturers and engineering companies. Michael’s expertise is in computer modelling, and this can show how the nanoparticles perform. testing of these novel adhesives is carried out by his colleague, DavidMcAuliff, and

Industry centres

WhIlE research centres are usually based in colleges, two new ones are more at home in industry. The Irish Centre for Manufacturing Research, ICMR, is based at Intel, and the Innovation for Ireland’s Energy Efficiency ,I2E2, is based at DePuy. The State backed collaboration involves a number of companies, and initiative aims to foster industry led collaboration in research. Companies involved with ICMR are Intel, DePuy J&J, Boston Scientific, Analog Devices, Seagate, Bombardier, Ceramicx, EMC2, and Pfizer. Partners in 12E2 include DePuy J&J, Analog Devices, Aughinish, Intel, Pfizer, Ceramicx, Crowley Carbon, Bombardier, Carbury, Boston Scientific, EMC2.

Michael Leonard is among the early career researchers being supported by IRCsEt’s Enterprise Partnership scheme. Anita McGuire from IRCsEt said that this has scheme has been highly successful in solving one of the problems facing both industry and young researchers. Post graduate researchers have often lacked industrial experience, and people running companies can have difficulty in coming to grips with an academic mind-set. Having the opportunity to study and conduct research in both environments means that students can stay connected to both throughout their career. Anita McGuire said since the launch of the Partnership scheme in 2004, 120 companies have become participants. In most cases, she said, this was the first time for companies to make contact with academic research teams, yet, the partnership almost inevitably continues long after the end of specific projects. As Anita remarked, the scheme has resulted in a significant cultural change. Tom Kennedy

Backing the winners

ThIS yEAR Enterprise Ireland gave support to 80 exporting start-ups. These are classified by Enterprise Ireland as technology led companies having a high capacity for growth through exporting. Out of the 80, 38 were listed as industrial or life science companies, 34 are software or services, and just eight are food and consumer enterprises. Most, at 85, are home-grown companies, 10 are research spin offs, and 5 were set up outside Ireland or established by returned entrepreneurs. Dublin based companies received most of the support and the Midlands the least. The break down for Dublin was 40, Mid East 7, South 11, Border areas 7, West 5, Mid-West 9, Midlands 1.

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TK, Source Archive.

THE ROCKY WEST

Castlebar

Westport

Belcarra

CLARE ISLAND

Ballyhean Roonagh Quay

Murisk

Louisburg

Cross Aghagower

INISHTURK

Killadoon

Killavally

Ballintober

Cregganbawn Partry

Srah

Sheffrey Hills Partry Mountains

Mweelrea Mountains

Toormakeady

Maumtrasna Tully Cross

Lough Mask

Lennaun

Ballinrobe

Neale

Letterfrack

Cloghbrack Clonbur

Twelve Pins

Maumturk Mountains

Cong

Cornamona

Clifden Lough Corrib

Recess Maam Cross


s

Lough Mask and Lough Corrib were, in fact, already connected, with water flowing through caverns underground, but apart from providing a surface link, a canal with locks was needed because one lake is lower than the other. The difference varies with rainfall and season, but Lough Mask can be 1.8 metres higher than Lough Corrib. The canal was dug, but it never filled. The project was a failure, and when water was fed into it simply drained away to disappear into the porous limestone. The failure was not due to an error or ignorance, but the money needed to finish and seal the canal was not forthcoming. ÂŁ82,285 had already been spent, and with the arrival of rail, local landowners, who had been expected to benefit, lost interest in throwing good money after bad.

The area between Saint Patrick’s Reek in Mayo and the wilds of Connemara is rich in history and its valleys, lakes and mountains are among the most spectacular in Ireland. Tom Kennedy reports how the rocks are adding value to the attractions.

B

efore anyone thought of creating a western rail corridor, there was a grand plan to link Ballinrobe to Galway. Vessels were already crossing Lough Corrib, and all it would take was a 6.4 km long canal to allow them continue their journey up by Cong to Ballinrobe and the head of Lough Mask.

Both lakes are vast, Lough Mask is sixteen kilometres long and four wide, and the prospect of linking the two was highly attractive, so in 1840 work began on building a canal. Construction continued for five years with an army of diggers and shovelers being paid between ten pence and a shilling a day.

An outline chart of the geology between Clew Bay and Connemara Carboniferous limestone Deposited in a warm tropical sea about 300 to 454 million years ago. The Clew Bay complex An assortment of greatly altered Silurian rocks. Silurian Formed about 410 to 440 million years ago from sands and mud deposited in the Iapetus Ocean from an ancient continent, Laurentia. Caledonian Granite Magma welled up and slowly solidified below the surface to form granites, which have since become exposed by weathering away of the covering rocks.. Ordovician Deposits laid down between about 450 and 490 million years ago at a time of intense volcanic activity. Ordovican volcanic rocks As continental plates collided, pushing the ocean floor under, this area was in a ring of volcanoes. Dalradian Precambrian rocks, among the oldest in Ireland, at over 550 million years.


Above: Killary Bay, a drowned valley. The 16 km valley was deepened by ice carving down through soft Ordovician slates. The beds of slate rise through a series of successions beginning with coarse, purple coloured river borne material. Then come a series of marine sandstones and mudstones, showing that the sea was becoming less deep over time. Right: The limstone shore of Lough Corrib.

This is a landscape that can be Patricia Walsh, the driving force vanished Iapetus ocean. The enormous traced back to a time when Ireland as behind the nearby Petersburg Outdoor Laurentia continent straddled what is we know it now did not exist. Most of Centre at Clonbur, remarked that “In now the equator, and south of this, but the rocks rising up into the peaks west summer I have waked along the canal, moving slowly northwards, was another of Lough Mask were laid down over and in winter I have kayaked it.” continent, Avalonia. Eventually the 450 million years ago in the Ordovican The disappearing canal, and the continents collided, closing the Iapetus era, and at that time this area was part eroded limestone blocks that are so Ocean, and forcing what is now the south of a continental margin by the long prominent in walls around The Neale east of Ireland and Britain, up against and Cong, are just a few of the the deformed and crumpled edge of geologically interesting features that Laurentia. By the late Silurian, about Patricia can point to in the area. 410 million years ago, the two shores The lakes themselves lie on the welded together into what we now western edge of the Carboniferous see running right across Ireland as limestone plane, and the grey rock, the Iapetus Suture. That was the end while hard, is easily dissolved by of the Iapetus Ocean, and for a long slightly acidic rainwater. Where time afterwards the area we now there is limestone, there are usually know as Ireland, was just one small caves, but unlike the Burren in part of a greater landmass. This is County Clare, which is famous why the rocks of Newfoundland for its caves, the water table is so are so similar to those in north west high in south Mayo and Galway Ireland, and the Atlantic, that now that underground streams do not forms our western coast, did not have to drop, but continue to flow yet exist. The Atlantic only began to horizontally. Part of the charm of open more than 300 million years Cong, with its famous monastery, later, a process that continues, and Worn into a variety of shapes and patterns, the limestone is that it stands just above swirling will continue for a long time to is to porous that water flows from Lough Mask into Lough water than wells up from below. come. Corrib without reaching the surface. Whatever caverns exist in the area We can only imagine what the usually remain flooded, and one of ancient continent of Laurentia the exceptions is Poll na Gollum, the looked like, but it must have been Pigeon Hole, by Cong, with its 61 a barren rocky landscape with fast steps down into the limestone. running torrents carrying debris Lough Mask is hemmed in down from bare mountains to the to the west by some of the most Iapetus shore. These ocean coast ancient rocks in Ireland, and this sediments remain in Ireland’s rugged landscape is all part of what north west as a six kilometre deep is known as the Joyce Country. succession of rocks. Named from one of the old 14th These Ordovician rocks, altered, century clans, variously known as cracked, and folded, now form the Joys, Joyces or Seoighs, the area a broad east west synclinal belt is spectacular wilderness, and for that extends through the Partry, geologists, it is the next best thing to Mweelrea and Sheffrey mountains. a Silurian and Ordovician paradise. The lower end of this formation with

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TK, Source Archive.

sandstones, slates and conglomerates, deposited laid down in deep water, crops out to the north by Westport, and these rocks in turn are overlain by finer deposits washed down from the north and east. These ancient rocks, and the numerous eruptions sparked off by the collision of continents, are of great interest to geologists, and for this reason, Patricia argues that the Joyce Country could become more widely recognised internationally not just for its scenery and history but as a geopark. Since the Petersburg Outdoor Education Centre was established by the Galway Vocational Education Committee a number of organisations including Mayo County Council, the Dept of Gaeltach, Galway Mayo Institute of Technology, and the Geological Survey of Ireland, have become actively involved, and gaining recognition as a geopark is high on Patricia’s agenda. As she explained, this is not something that can happen overnight, and indeed, setting up the Outdoor Centre to begin with was quite a challenge. Situated in an idyllic spot by Lough Corrib, the old house that is now the centre piece, to put it mildly, was a wreck. “We were advised to demolish it,” said Patricia, but instead, it was made into a highly successful restoration project, with a canteen, lecture room, and even laundry facilities for visitors. The previous owners, the Lynches, like many landed gentry, gave up their large estate, and the house, they had once planned to remodel into a mock castle, fell into such decay that the roof fell in, but thanks to the restoration, some of old Lynch family photographs now hang in the reception room. As Patricia explained, local support for the geopark concept is high. A growing number of farmers have shown willingness to accommodate visitors, and some, said Patricia, have even handed over sites to allow cars to park. Access, said Patricia, is a very important consideration in developing a real functioning geopark. Geologists and students are not just sightseers, they need to explore and get face-to-face with rock exposures. Sometimes, said Patricia, people think that creating a geopark means that restrictions are going to be imposed on local communities, but as she is keen to point out, this is certainly not the case. “This is all about adding value,” she said, and while a number of outside agencies are involved, the agenda ultimately is in the hands of those living in the area.

Nafoofey lake with the Partry Mountains rising behind. Geologically, the area is quite complex, so apart from providing problems for researchers to solve, geology students have a lot to learn by visiting the Joyce County. This is the sort of activity that fits in well with the Petersburg centre, and every year a number of geologists from Sheffield University come and a large group of US students from Madison University, Virginia, stay there for an overseas field trip. The centre provides hostel type accommodation, which, as

Patricia observes, is ideal for students who want to combine field work with a bit of after hours socialising. Last month, these students were in residence, catering for themselves and leaving their laptops and recorders out during the day in the lecture hall. Hotels, observed Patricia, could never provide that kind of accommodation, but they could certainly benefit from tourists who would appreciate knowing a lot more about what they have come to see.

Where is the geopark? Geology has no boundaries, and while there are many significant features throughout Mayo, the geopark project is based around the loosely defined Joyce Country which extends from south Mayo into north Galway. There are no strict boundaries, but Patricia Walsh said the main focus is on the landscape around Cong, Clonbar, Clochbreac, Cornamona, Finny, Tourmakeady, Maam, Kilmilkin, and Leenaun. The initial phase of the project involves establishing an awareness that geology can provide the foundation for a broad range of local developments based on bringing more visitors into the region. Rather than looking at geology in isolation, the aim is to make it one of the key elements in a broad bundle of attractions, all of which enhance the visitor’s experience. For those who like to enjoy the great outdoors, an area defined as a geopark immediately becomes a big attraction. In the past few years a number of areas around the world have become classified as geoparks, and those that have been able to demonstrate a high level of sustainable management, have gained official recognition, in much the same way as world heritage sites. In Ireland, the Marble Arch Caves in Fermanagh, and the Copper Coast in Wexford have achieved this seal of approval, and at the time of writing, a submission from the Burren in Clare is under consideration. Not every submission will succeed, the terms are quite strict, and not every area of geological interest is suitable, but the officially recognised geoparks do set a standard, and they provide a good working model for community based groups to follow. Understandably, both the Geological Survey of Ireland and its counterpart in Northern Ireland, have been very active in promoting the concept of geoparks, and apart from supporting the recruitment of geologists, a joint geopark group was established three years ago. This group has held annual conferences at Stormont, in Clare, and the latest meeting was held at the outdoor centre in Petersburg.

SCIENCE SPIN Issue 47 Page 25


The closing of the Iapetus Ocean pushed the Earth’s plates into each other creating a ring of fire. There are many volcanic features in this part of Mayo, and on Mweelrea mountain where the igneous intrusions broke through the old Ordovician rocks there are shards of volcanic glass, known as ignimbrites. These shards were formed by the rapid cooling of ejected materials. Volcanic rocks occur around Bohaun and Sraheen in the Erriff Valley where there are what are known as pillow lavas. Volcanic rocks by Lough Nafooey are thought to have been produced in an oceanic island arc, and wave worn rocks show that some volcanoes were under water. In this chart we see what this part of the globe was like during the mid Ordovician period, about 470 million years ago. The northern end of Ireland was an ocean away from the south. As Laurentia made its way towards Avolania, the heavy ocean floor was pushed under the lighter land mass causing massive disruption. This process, known as subduction (see Science Spin 46) causes intensely hot magma to rise and break through the disrupted crust.

IRELAND NW IRELAND SE

TK, Source Archive.

Volcanics

The Reek

Croagh Patrick is so well known that it is conical shape has almost become an icon for County Mayo. Unlike the Ordovician rocks nearby, the Reek began as a heap of slightly younger Silurian sand, that became solidified into extremely tough quartzite. This Silurian belt of sandstones, siltstones, shallow water limestones and lots of quartzite, stretches along the southern Clew Bay coast until it meets the Carboniferous rocks to the east laid down about 100 million later as the sea level began to rise again to cover the Devonian deserts. Another belt of Silurian rocks extends from Roonagh Quay, the departure point for Clare Island, to Louisburg Old Head. Between the two belts is another Silurian feature known as the Emlagh Thrust, consisting of baked, folded and faulted sandstones, and siltstones, with interbeds of red mudstones. Some of these mudstones have drying cracks, which shows that they must have been exposed to the sun, and above these fresh-water fishes and dry land plant fossils begin to appear. Because of the similarity of rocks and fossils, it is thought that this was a continuation of the Silurian Midland Valley in Scotland, which is just one indicator of how the Earth’s landscape never stays the same.


Some fragments of history

GeoloGically old, the Joyce country also has a long history of human occupation, and it is thought that the first inhabitants came into the area to mine copper, and it could well be that the quartzite peak of croagh Patrick to the north became sacred because of its gold. Before the decline of Gaelic power, the area was controlled by a number of tribes, or septs who followed Brehon Law, and owed allegiance to their high king, one of whom commissioned a silver and bronze covered cross. This is the famous Cong Cross, crafted for Turlough Mór O’Connor, king of Connaught, Meath, Breifne and Munster. Brought to Cong from Tuam, it was smuggled out of the monastery just before Queen Elizabeth’s notorious Governor, Bingham, arrived on the scene in 1540. It went back into the parish church, only to be sold for one hundred guineas to the Royal irish Academy by a hard pressed priest who

needed funds to repair the roof. In fury, another cleric, Fr lavelle, raced off to Dublin, and in a smash and grab raid removed the cross from the National Museum where it had gone on display. Fr lavelle, well-educated and extremely combatitive, had been sent into Tourmakeady by the Catholic Archbishop to counter the efforts of landlord and Protestant Bishop of Tuam, Thomas Plunkett, to convert or evict his tenants. It was a dreadful time for all those unfortunate enough to be caught

in the middle, and events came to a head in 1860, when for three days during November, thirteen families were driven out to fend for themselves. Although evictions continued, the news caused such an international outcry that it marked a turning point in Irish history. Tourmakeady has also made a significant contribution to the Gaelic revival, and for many years coláiste Mhuire was the place national school teachers headed for to become proficient in Irish.

TK, Source Archive.

The magnificent scenery by Doo Lough.


CLONBUR ROCK SPECIMENS Some of the rocks collected during field trips from the Clonbur centre showing the great diversity of geology in the area.

The top of a Silurian rugose coral from Kilbride. Often known as Horn Corals, they had a calcite skeleton and it is thought that they may have had stinging cells to help capture prey.

Many of the original rocks have been deformed by great forces as the Earth’s plates pushed against each other. Dalradian schist

A weathered breccia, a type of rock occurring at Mount Gable. Breccias were formed by the accumulation of rock debris which over time have become bonded together by finer materials into solid rock.

Quartzite from Mamturks, a hard and brittle rock that originated from sand. Small colonies of calcified Silurian corals from Kilbride Peninsula that once flourished in the Iapetus Ocean .


Colonial coral, lithostrotion, from Carboniferous limestone Ballykyne, Clonbur.

Silurian rugose coral, Kilbride.

Dalradian schist, a type of rock usually with a distinctive shiny surface, was produced enormous pressure on ancient muds or other deposits. The source materials have been greatly altered so that mineral grains have been elongated in one direction.

Ignimbrite, Ordovician, near Lough Nafoofey. Evidence of pyroclastic flow, during a violent volcanic explosion.

Graphite, Dalradian, Kilbride Quarry, near Doon Rock, Co Mayo. Carboniferous, limestone by Petersburg, Crinoid fossils stand out from the weathered limestone.


YOUNG SCIENTISTS

The BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition has secured a €2 guarantee of support over the coming three years. The continued support from BT means that the annual exhibition will remain one of the largest and most successful events of its kind in Europe. BT has also announced that the travel and accommodation grant is being increased by fifty per cent, making it easier for schools throughout the country to participate. Graham Sutherland, CEO of BT said the exhibition ticks all the right boxes in terms of meeting the needs of students and stimulating interest in science, technology, engineering and maths. It also encourages a positive attitude to innovation, and ultimately that is of benefit to everyone in the country, The closing date for entries is 3rd October 2011, and the exhibition will run from 11th to 15th January at the RDS. LIVE www.btyoungscientist.com INK L

Going cyber for the show, Asling Mullen from Mercy Secondary School.

Aislinn Begley and Doireann Roche, St. Vincent’s Secondary School, Dundalk, Co. Louth

Debate on animal testing

In AprIl finalists met at the TCD Science Gallery to debate the claim that animal testing is necessary for the advancement of disease treatment. More than fifty schools from around the country had entered the debating competition, and by the finals, this had been narrowed down to four teams. The winners, who backed the claim, were from St Vincent’s Secondary School, Dundalk. Coláiste an Phiarsaigh of Glanmire Co Cork were the runners up at the final. Ulster was represented by St Catherine’s Vocational School, Killybegs, Co Donegal and Connacht by St. Joseph’s College Garbally, Co Galway. The debating competition is a cross-border event involving collaboration between REMEDI, W5, Biomedical Diagnostics Institute, RCSI, Crann, Clarity, Tyndall and APC.

Inspirational

SIx transition year students from St Gerald’s College in Castlebar have been named, “The most inspirational team in the world” for their Lego engineering project. The Lego Robotics Challenge is an international competition attracting thousands of entrants from around the world. Bernard Kirk, Director of the Galway Education Centre, who first brought the competition to Ireland, said this is the second year for Irish students to make it through to the finals in the US. The students, Paul McDonogh, Luke Benson, Oisin Kyne, Donnchadh Barry, Paul Murray, and Ardian Murphy travelled to the St Louis, Missouri, with their teacher, Declan Askin. They were among 88 teams from 28 countries, so coming out ahead as global winners, said Declan, was quite an achievement.

Smart ideas

Junior inventors have come up with some smart solutions to everyday problems. In a competition for primary schools run by the Patents Office pupils from Baltinglass, Co Wicklow, won with their plan to make it easier for people to find seats in a darkened cinema. Like many good ideas, this one is quite simple, and could be very effective not just in cinemas but in all sorts of situations where people have to leave and come back to seats which have then been taken by someone else. rosin Connolly, Kate Dowling and Abbie Byrne, from Scoil naomh iosaf in Baltinglass, came up with a lighting system that glows green when the seat has been tipped up for more than ten minutes, indicating that the position is vacant. Pupils from St Anne’s national School in Straffan, Co Kildare, came up with another suggestion that could save lives. Most of us use mobile phones, and for many people they double up at night as alarm clocks. As Eimhin O’Neill observed, most fires spread at night, when people are asleep, and it should be relatively easy to incorporate a smoke alarm into the phone. According to the Patents Office, 2,500 entries from 234 schools were received for this year’s competition.

SCIENCE SPIN Issue 47 Page 30


YOUNG SCIENTISTS

Rewarding behaviour Tom Kennedy reports on how Aoife Stephens, a young scientist and horse owner from Kerry has shown that trainers would get much better results if they stopped punishing their animals. If training is a problem, don’t blame the horse. All too often trainers resort to imposing punishments rather than offering rewards for good behaviour, and as Aoife Stephens, a transition year student from Presentation Secondary School, Milltown in Kerry observed, the results usually leave a lot to be desired. “Many horses in Ireland,” she said, “are not well trained, even to the extent of basic obedience and good manners” and as the owner of two horses, she became interested in finding out why this is so often the case. She heard about a method called ‘clicker training’, a technique originally developed by psychologists funded by the US military to teach animals, such as pigeons and dolphins, to perform potentially useful tasks. This was a rewards based approach to training, and while that concept is far from new, the psychologists realised that to be effective, any delay, however slight, or confusion in offering the reward had to be avoided. The most common form of reward is a tit-bit of food, but this might not be given fast enough, or the animals might not be that quick to make the connection between a friendly pat and good behaviour, so the psychologists came up with a more instantly recognisable signal in the form of an audible click. It was found that a surprisingly wide variety of animals quickly learned to associate the click with reward, and trainers found that clicking is a highly efficient way to communicate commands. With something as simple and clear as an audible click, said Aoife, there is none of the ambiguity that gives rise to so many problems when animals are trained using a mix of conflicting signals. As she explained, lowering the head is one of the ways to keep a nervous horse calm, so it is an important part of training. The usual practice, she said, is to pull the reigns until the horse lowers its head, and then, when the horse literally gives in, it might get a friendly scratch on the neck or a tit-bit reward. The problem with this approach, she continued, is that it presents the horse with a mixed signal, and that makes it a lot more difficult to understand. Also, and this is more serious, it confuses punishment and reward. Aoife, who has grown up owning and training horses, said that inefficient training leads to a lot of frustration. Poor training is as bad for the horse as it is for the owner. Aoife first heard learned about clicker training from Mary Concannon, who runs a training centre near Tralee in Kerry. (www. irishclickercentre.com). Impressed at seeing the clicker in action, Aoife not only began applying the technique to her own horses, but decided to find out how it compared to traditional methods. She began training a number of horses, dividing these into clickers, and non-clickers, and at this year’s BT Young Scientist and Technology exhibition, she presented her results. Aoife’s study is most impressive, and it gives a detailed break down of how the various approaches to training horses compared. Her main conclusion, backed by practical application, is that clicker training is far more effective than traditional methods, it gets results faster, and the horses become more confident and well behaved. Since starting to use clicker training three years ago, Aoife said the quality of her relationship with horses has completely changed for the better.

Aoife Stephens at the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition where she received First Prize in the Intermediate Social and Behavioral category Another significant advantage, she said, is that if a horse is difficult, either overly timid, or aggressive, clicking can be done from a safe distance. As part of her study Aoife approached a number of other horse owners to find out what they thought of clicking. Most owners and trainers, she said, had heard about it, but only a small number had actually tried it out, usually because they did not know enough about applying the technique. Clicker training, she said, is quite well established in the US, and not just for the sort of horses we see in Ireland. In the US, miniature horses are more common, and Aoife said that these have become an alternative to guide dogs for the blind. Clicker trained horses are obedient and well behaved, and unlike dogs, which may have a working life of just eight or nine years, a horse can keep going as a faithful companion for 30 or even more years. The Irish horse industry is important, observed Aoife, yet far too many people are still relying on training methods that are not efficient, so we have lots of disenchanted owners, and insecure animals. “I see clicker training having massive potential for the future development of horse training in Ireland,” she said. Asked if she would like to continue working with horses, her response is an unequivocal, and enthusiastic “Oh yes, I hope so!” Not much doubt about it, Aoife is one of the rising stars of the equestrian world. For horse owners or trainers, Aoife Stephen’s exceptional and clearly presented project report available as a download from http://courtingthehorse.com/aoifeproject.pdf Well worth reading.

SCIENCE SPIN Issue 47 Page 31


YOUNG SCIENTISTS

Sea Lettuce Seán Duke reports that West Cork students are putting green, slimy invaders to good use.

T

he beautiful beaches of west County Cork have sadly, in the past few years, been overwhelmed by hordes of unwelcome, green, slimy, smelly, and noxious invaders. No, this story has nothing to do with certain human visitors to the area. Rather this concerns the arrival of a green algae, ‘Sea Lettuce’ – or Ulva Lactuca to be precise. It is not clear why the Sea Lettuce has arrived in rural Cork in such numbers. The two most popular theories are that it has something to do with global warming, as the Sea Lettuce is a creature that thrives in shallow, warm waters. Another theory is that it is linked to the pressure put on the local waste water plant. It’s said that the Clonakilty waste treatment plant can’t cope with the increase in holiday homes in the area in recent times. The inevitable result, it is argued, is the leaking of raw sewage into the ‘run off’ water, upon which the Sea Lettuce thrives. But, no one knows the exact cause for sure. Neither is west Cork alone, as this is a global problem now, one that has reared its head in places as far flung as Brittany, Beijing and Australia. The local people in Cork have watched in horror as their beautiful beaches have disappeared under piles of green slime, sitting on top of the sand, emitting noxious gases and killing off some existing forms of sea life. Enter three enterprising local Transition Year students, Muireasa Carroll, Mairéad Kingston and Denise Hurley from the Sacred Heart School in Clonakilty. They wanted to see if they could turn a ‘negative into a positive’. They come up with a great idea. To harvest the Lettuce, use a machine to compress the water out of it, and mould it into briquettes for burning. They would then see if the Lettuce briquettes were a viable source of heat, and what gases they would emit.

They made their briquettes using a hydraulic pumping ramp. They tested the briquettes and found that they burned slightly longer than peat, with slightly less heat emitted. Also, the briquettes were ‘carbon neutral’. That meant that, unlike fossil fuel briquettes, they did not emit significant amounts of carbon dioxide ‘greenhouse gas’. They appeared to have a viable ‘renewable fuel’ product that could be harvested cheaply from the strangled beaches in their locality. But, they didn’t stop there. They tested the briquettes for water concentration and found that even after they were compressed and moulded that the briquettes were made up of 25 per cent water. If they can eliminate more water, they will have a product that burns even longer. They also looked at the waste products from the burning of the briquettes – ash – to see if it could be put to good use. They found that the briquette ash was a very effective fertiliser and that it was also useful as a cleaning product to absorb stains. All in all, it’s a brilliant idea, and reflects the move in recent years at the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition towards discoveries that can help society to improve. Certainly, Sean Gallagher, one of the ‘Dragons’ from the RTE series ‘Dragons Den’ thought it was an excellent idea when he stopped to have a look while at the Show. The girls are veterans of the Show and were also at the RDS in 2010. They impressed then too, enough to get be offered a marketing course at TCD, which they took. The lettuce briquettes have been registered as a patent with the Irish patent office, and the girls want to develop the product into a business at some stage in the future. They have also been invited to talk to local county councils, about their great idea. But, for now, they have the Leaving Cert to attend to, but watch this space, as this is an idea that could ‘find legs’ when the girls emerge from school in a few years time. This project was the winner of the ‘Intel Students of Excellence Award, at the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition 2011. SPIN

Restoring woodland

BETwEEN 2006 and 2009 Coilte restored more than 550 hectares of native woodland by removing exotics and creating conditions that led to natural regeneration. Restoration was carried out at nine forest sites in Cavan, Clare, Galway, Laois, Limerick, Mayo, Offaly, Sligo and Tipperary. The restoration was chosen as one of the best LIFE nature conservation projects of 2010 by the European

Commission. Although Coilte has only been working on this project for the past four years, project manager, Sean Quealy, said the native woodland had been quick to respond. Most of the regeneration, he said, is natural, and he said it is very encouraging to see such a profusion of native trees and shrubs. For more details of the project: www.woodlandrestoration.ie

SCIENCE SPIN Issue 47 Page 32

LIVE LINK


YOUNG SCIENTISTS

Spreading trees Why should some trees spread, while others stay together in groups? Tom Kennedy talked to a young scientist, John Clancy, about what he had found out about natural designs.

W

hen John Clancy looked around his part of County Clare, he noticed that some trees remained together and were slow to spread, while others were much more evenly distributed. John, a second year student at Mary Immaculate school in Lisdoonvarna, thought that dispersal of seeds must be involved, and he decided that this would be well worth investigating. “I looked at four species,” he said. Horse Chestnut, Apple, Ash, and Sycamore. “They are all very different, so there is a lot of variety there,” he said. As anyone familiar with different trees knows, chestnut ‘conkers’ fall like stones, apples have their pips, while both Ash and Sycamore both produce seeds with fly-away wings. As John observed, unless chestnuts or apples are carried away by boys, birds or other agents, they germinate where they fall, so, left to their own devices, these trees tend to grow in isolated groups. With Ash and Sycamore, the wind blown seeds can travel far and wide, so these species become more dispersed, and indeed, as John found, “we don’t have many Horse Chestnuts in north Clare, just two or three in my area.” For dispersal, seeds with wings clearly have an advantage, but John began to wonder if these trees had managed to come up with a perfect design for flight. Could nature’s designs be improved? To find some answers to that question, John got to work, crafting his own winged ‘seeds’, and armed with these, and the products of nature, he went aloft the school balcony.

Hepatitus C

SoMe people are more at risk from Hepatitus C, a common viral infection that can cause liver failure. one of the problems with this virus is that the people may never know that they have become infected until serious symptoms indicate that something is wrong. In many cases, the body’s own immune system clears up the infection, but as scientists at TCD have found, those with variants in two gene sequences are at more at risk of developing the disease. Anti D products, contaminated with HCV had been give to many women before stocks were withdrawn. At TCD, Dr Clair Gardiner and her team of researchers in the School of Biochemistry and Immunology studied the genes of more than 540 women who had become infected as a result of this contamination, and they discovered a strong link between these two genetic variants and development of the disease. The genes are connected to the immune system. one of these genes, KIR2DS3, is a receptor produced by the immune system’s killer cells. This receptor is needed to hook up to the invader. The second gene, is a single genetic mutation, near a gene known as interleukin-28B. This gene carries the code for a soluble anti-viral substance, known as cytokine mediator.

Dropping the real and created seeds from a height of 4.8 metres, he soon found that nature had a distinct edge. John’s father made sure that he found and correctly identified the different species of trees, and his teacher, John Simms helped with all the calculations. A closer look showed that, compared to his own creations of paper, the Sycamore seed has a much more varied profile with materials arranged to give just the right balance for efficient flight. Not that John accepted that it might not be possible to improve on this design, but as he concluded, nature is not necessarily aiming for perfection in flight. If spread of the species is the ultimate aim, a design that appears perfect to an engineer, might not actually perform better.

It appears that by acting together these two genetic variations greatly increase the risk of the disease developing into a chronic condition. Dr Gardiner commented that identification of these risk factors provides researchers with a target that they can focus on in the search for effective treatments. PoWer lines on the continent of europe are of considerably higher voltage than here, but an upgrading of the grid in Ireland is planned, and no doubt that will fuel the debate on whether it is safe or not to live under high voltage electric lines. In June, Dutch newspapers report that the Minister for economic Affairs has agreed to offer 1,300 families compensation so that they can move away from power lines. A substantial amount, €500 million, is involved, but this is to be paid for by a levy of about one euro on every household in The Netherlands over a period of 25 years. Further south, in France, storks, those big birds that bring us babies, are not at all concerned. The massive electric pylons have become favourite nesting roosts.

SCIENCE SPIN Issue 47 Page 33


Ireland

DIgItAl IslAnD In A DIgItAl OceAn A

ll across the world, next generation information and communications technologies (ICT) are needed to allow the sustainable economic development of our oceans, which as a source of food, transport and energy is our greatest natural resource. There are significant challenges for the development of reliable technology solutions that can survive deployment in the challenging and dynamic conditions of our marine environment. Ireland has over 220 million acres of marine area and as a country with a strong expertise in ICT has significant potential to be a world leader in the provision of specialist ICT solutions to the global marine sector. The Marine Institute recently hosted the second Annual SmartOcean Conference – ‘Driving New Business Opportunities at the Interface of ICT and the Sea’, in Oranmore, Co. Galway on the 5th and 6th July. The event was organised to help profile and support the development of world class Irish companies and academic researchers pioneering the development of ICT for the Sea. “The object of the event is to explore the opportunities for economic growth presented by the convergence of new technologies such as robotics, sensors, grid and cloud computing, with applications to marine related activities such as environmental monitoring, ocean energy, marine safety, aquaculture etc.,” said Dr. Peter Heffernan, CEO of the Marine Institute, who chaired the first session. “Worldwide, marine markets represent a trillion dollar global activity and Ireland is uniquely positioned to leverage its ICT cluster to target this opportunity.” Great progress has already been made, thanks to competitive research funding provided by national and international sources, including the Marine Institute which has supported projects across the ICT sector, many of which were described at the conference. Presentations included updates on the development use of intelligent machines for underwater inspection to the use of wireless technologies to enable offshore developments and environmental monitoring, as well as offshore aquaculture development, wave energy generation and marine security. Ireland’s National Facility for Marine ICT ‘SmartBay’ was also profiled at the event. Established as a pilot project in 2008 off the west coast of Ireland, SmartBay was designed to provide a

real world test environment for the development of technology products and services for the global marine sector. Key industry partners who have trialled technologies in the infrastructure to date include companies not immediately associated with the marine sector such as IBM who have web portals that display data on environmental conditions to and Intel who have developed a wireless communication system to help transmit data from the marine environment in real time. These technologies are also being connected to smart phones and mobile devices to deliver real time updates on changing weather and sea state conditions. Gaming technologies are also being investigated for the creation of virtual oceans and to act as interactive design tools for marine spatial offshore explorations. Each of these companies form part of Ireland’s developing SmartOcean Cluster – now standing at a group of over 50 companies throughout Ireland focussed on the development and delivery of innovative marine ICT applications to global markets. “Through the SmartOcean Cluster, Irish based multinational corporations and indigenous companies are working together to capitalise on new market opportunities linked to the Digital Ocean” said Dr Barbara Fogarty National Co-ordinator for Advanced Marine Technologies. “The Marine Institute and other state agencies are supporting these companies by providing access to state assets such as research ships, underwater vehicles and offshore test beds as well as facilitating collaborative research opportunities.” Other Irish expertise highlighted at the SmartOcean workshop include the development of unmanned, autonomous and remotely operated underwater vehicles at the Mobile Marine Robotics Research Centre of the University of Limerick, advanced computer simulation of marine data from the company RealSim, and real time acoustic monitoring of marine mammals such as whales and dolphins by Biospheric. Meanwhile, the MERC consortium have successful projects underway in ocean energy, maritime technologies and security and at Dublin City University, the MESTECH Marine & Environmental Sensing Technology Hub has successful projects underway in the areas of visual sensing, the prevention of biofouling in the aquatic environment and specialised sensing platforms that can provide biological and chemical analysis remotely.

Smart Bay buoy in Galway Bay, and the layout of the Smart Bay test site.

LIVE LINK

www.marine.ie


The Law breaking Docks L

Tom kennedy writes that

thief, best avoided by people suffering ike those ‘wanted’ posters in every wild west sheriff’s office, warnings about some people make a meal from rheumatism or gout, its a question of a little going a long way, and removal of noxious weeds once adorned from the leaves of a wild the leaves have traditionally been used the walls of garda stations all around the country. It is quite a while since I have plant that is officially classed to put some zest into a salad. Maxwell Norris, who used to write a newspaper seen any of these warning notices, and that as a noxious weed column in the 1980s, noted in one of his probably indicates the unfortunate, but informative articles, that as a child he growing neglect of farmland, more and was familiar with this tang, adding that more of which is being allowed revert to “many a country mother occasionally the wild. Not that long ago, having any treats her family to a tasty dish of thick one of the terrible threesome, ragweed, sorrel stew.” Sorrel Dock is grown as a thistle, or dock, was likely to result in culinary herb, and as Norris reported it a visit from the authorities, and failure was never allowed to “bolt”, so like cabto remove them was an offence that bages and sprouts, it was discouraged could lead to a fine. I have no idea of from flowering as this would spoil the how many farmers were hauled before flavour of the leaves. the courts, but on well stocked land, No doubt, everyone “knows” that ragweed and dock were, and still are, dock is the cure for nettle stings, but very unwelcome intruders, for both are as a student I was reprimanded, quite toxic. properly, for repeating this widespread In Ireland a Bill outlawing these belief without questioning its validity. invaders was passed in 1909, and in 1936 This belief is so often repeated in folklore the Noxious Weeds Act stated that “any records, that it is an established part of member of the Gárda Síochána and any herbal tradition, but oddly enough, the inspector may at all reasonable times enevidence to show that a dock leaf will ter upon any land situated in any area” cure a nettle sting is surprisingly weak. to determine if the law was being broken. It could well be that the broad leaf of Like ragweed, the docks, for there are Rumex obtusifolius, which, after all was different types, are a tough bunch and used to wrap butter, simply has a cooling have always been well beyond the law. effect, and rubbing on the dock, I was They are among the most common of also informed by one of Ireland’s leading our wild plants, familiar to everybody as experts on pain, Dr David Finn at NUI dock, there are two main species, Rumex Galway, helps anyhow to bring relief by acetosa, with its narrower leaves, and triggering our inbuilt pain suppression Rumex obtusifolius, with its large broad system. That’s also why we instinctively leaves that were once used to wrap butrub our knocked knee after falling off the ter. There are in fact, about 200 species of bike. Rumex, nine of which, if we leave out the Of course, this is one of the great hybrids, occur in Ireland, and they are problems with herbal remedies. Until quite invasive. From their home ground the mechanisms are known and can in the northern hemisphere, the docks be described with scientific precision, have travelled to Australia, New Zeathe cures are just a matter of opinion, land, the United States, and other parts and with docks, the beliefs abound. of the world. Records collected by the Irish Folklore Farmers do not like dock because they Commission include cures for sunburn “sour” the feed with soluble oxalate. to the lips, a treatment for “sore leg,” These acidic oxalates mop up body and a remedy against “worms”. More metals, including calcium with which it than likely there were good reasons for forms insoluble deposits, and for sheep the emergence and persistence of these especially, this can be fatal. When docks traditions, and while oxalic acid in its are harvested along with grass, the feed pure form is a relatively uncomplicated is poisoned, and animals can die from Sorrel, Rumex acetosa, engraving from the work molecule, H2C2O4, it occurs in plants such kidney failure. of the German scholar, Leonhart Fuchs as dock as just one part of a bioavailable The narrow leaved Sorrel Dock, (1501-1566). cocktail. Rumex acetosa, known as Samhadh bó or The flowers, which are small, are not Samhadh caopacht, in Irish, is the main there for show, for the docks are wind pollinated, but once they culprit, and the same acidity that makes it harmful also makes develop, three of the inner sepals become enlarged to surround it useful as a culinary herb. Like rhubarb, another acidic metal

science sPin issue 47 Page 35


Left and right, Sorrel Dock among the grass in County Mayo. Centre, Broad Leaved Dock, Rumex obtusifolius. a three-sided nut. In the Sorrel Dock, these winged nuts are held crop, but the farm manager is not very pleased, because he does aloft on conspicious red spikes, which my mother, as a little girl, not like to see dock weed on the farm.” No doubt northern farmers, who take great pride in lands used rub off as “money” when playing shop with her sisters. that are neat and tidy, would have had their reservations on this While unpopular on the farm, there was a suggestion by unusual suggestion and would much preferred the discussions agricultural experts that dock could be made pay. In 2008 there to concentrate on the potential of willow or miscanthus. was a debate on biomass energy at the Northern Assembly. Dock also came up for consideration as a plant that could One of the scientists called in by clean up contaminated ground. The the Committee for Agricultural and long roots draw up minerals from the Rural Development was Dr Lindsay soil, and as the Professor of Botany Easson, and he pointed out that dock at Liverpool University, Anthony has the potential to be an energy Bradshaw, discovered about forty crop. Dr Easson, talking about work years ago docks can continue to thrive being done at the UK’s equivalent of on soils that would kill other plants. Ireland’s Teagasc, the Agri-Food and This means that more tolerant strains Biosciences Institute, said, “we have could be planted on old mine tips and a novel crop, which no one else in the land contaminated by metals to draw British Isles is considering as a bioout the toxic waste. Oddly enough, mass crop. If any of you are involved the more tolerant plans, when tested, in farming you will know that one were at a disadvantage when transof the biggest weed problems that ferred to clean soils. we have is the dock weed. As part of Since then, bioremediation has bea review undertaken by our global come more common, but fast-growing research unit, it was discovered that micro-organisms seem to have bea species of dock weed has been come a lot more popular than plants, developed in Romania as a highly so, as with energy, cultivating tolerant productive crop that produces a great docks simply remain just another deal of biomass on an annual basis. bright idea that never really took off. We have planted a small area of that Ripening seeds of the Curled Dock, Rumex crispus, one of the species common in Ireland. Photograph: Christian Fischer.

Familiar leaves of the Broad Leaved Dock, Rumex obtusifolius


Precious metals margaret Franklin writes that silver and other precious metals have a far higher value for health than for wealth.

F

ollowing its launch of the International Year of Chemistry at UCD and the Women’s Breakfast Networking Event at the University of Limerick last January, the latest event organised by the Institute of Chemistry of Ireland to mark IYC 2011 was a lecture given on April 28th in the Royal College of Surgeons by Dr Malachi McCann, a senior lecturer in chemistry at NUI Maynooth. In a lively presentation, entitled ‘Syphilis, MRSA and Cancer — Cures with Metal Ions”, Malachi gave a brief history of this fascinating aspect of medicinal chemistry, before going on to describe his own researches in this field. Before launching into his talk, Dr McCann paid tribute to his former colleague, the late Rev Professor Michael T Casey, OP, Hon FICI, who had conducted extensive research in the Chemistry department in Maynooth for many years, continuing to work in the laboratory each afternoon until well into his nineties. He died on Christmas Day 1997, in his 96th year. He was a contemporary of the famous 20th century ‘grand old man’ of Chemistry, Nobel prizewinner Linus Pauling, and following Pauing’s death in 1994, Michael Casey became, during the last few years of his life, the oldest working chemist in the world. After this opening, Malachi brought the audience back in time, to the use of compounds of precious metals such as silver and gold which have all featured in Arabic, Hindu and Chinese prescriptions in ancient times. Zinc ointment has been used in topical wound healing since 1500 BC. A mixture of mercury salts and grease was used by the army of imperial Rome, to heal their war wounds, while mercury and arsenic were used to treat syphilis, another affliction of warring armies. Fast tracking to more recent times, Marachi told the gathering that Paul Ehrlich (1854 - 1915) coined the word ‘chemotherapy’. He said ‘we must search for magic bullets’ which would target the affected cells. One of his major contributions to medicinal chemistry was Salvarsan - a synthetic molecule containing arsenic, which he found to be very effective in the treatment of syphilis.

It works by inhibiting bacterial cell metabolism. Paul Ehrlich was awarded the 1908 Nobel Prize in medicine. Another famous name, with which most people are familiar, is that of Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin. This, of course is a naturally occurring antibiotic, rather than a synthetic chemical, but its discovery marked a great breakthrough in the treatment of certain infections. However, medicines do have side effects and it is well known that what makes the difference between a medicine and a poison is the dosage. This effect was shown in Bangladesh, where some deep water wells contain more than 50 micrograms per litre of arsenic. This causes severe dermatitis which can even lead to skin cancer. Coming to even more recent developments, Dr McCann went on to describe the synthesis of cisplatin by Barnett Rosenberg, a chemistry professor at Michigan State University. It was in the early 1970s that Rosenberg and his colleagues made this accidental discovery. They were actually trying to determine if electromagnetic energy could stop cell growth, by passing an alternating current through a medium containing bacteria. The growth medium contained ammonium and chloride ions. It so happened that platinum from the electrodes reacted with the ammonium and chloride ions to form a new complex compound which was named cisplatin, Pt(NH3)2Cl2, which stopped E-coli cells from rproducing. Further investigations showed that cisplatin interacts with DNA and prevents cell replication. It was then tested on mice tumours and was found to affect cancer cells. It has since been used to treat human cancer, including testicular cancer, lung cancer, head and neck cancers, bone cancers and early stage ovarian cancers. Turning from platinum to other precious metals, Dr McCann stated that gold has no biological role. But we do ingest traces of it in our food, between 70 - 90 micrograms per day. Dental

amalgam gold fillings are another source. Most of it is excreted, but some accumulates. It interacts with proteins, amino acid residues, free anions and receptors in cell membranes. Silver Ag+ has moderate to low toxicity in humans, but it kills germs. In ancient times, Alexander the Great used water vessels made of silver, as it was found it kept the water fresh for longer. Nowadays, the International Space Station uses silver as a disinfectant. Silver nitrate (AgNO3) was used to treat infantile conjunctivitis in newborns in the 1880s. Silver plaster is used to treat cuts and burns. Silvadene is used as an antibacterial for burns. Hydrogels impregnated with AgNO3 are used to disinfect wounds. Silver nanoparticles accelerate wound healing. At this point in his presentation, Dr. McCann showed a slide of a dramatic newspaper headline that said “Pyjamas with a Silver Lining — They Beat MRSA” He also produced a pair of pyjamas that had fine silver threads woven into the fabric - which was recommended for use in hospitals to prevent the spread of MRSA. However, he was not prepared to say if it actually worked. One remedy that really does work is a mixture of silver nitrate and potassium nitrate. (AgNO3 + KNO3) which is used in a ‘caustic pencil’ to treat warts and verucca. It does stain the skin black in the process, but this eventually wears off, as old skin cells die and are replaced.. In fact, silver 2 ions are deadly to most bacteria, fungi and viruses. 3 However, just as bacteria develop strains that are resistant to antibiotics, they can also develop resistance to metals. In 1999, an organism known as Pseudomonas shutzer was discovered in a silver mine in Canada. This was resistant to silver. There is a danger that uncontrolled use of Ag products may result in more bacteria developing resistance. Colloidal silver taken internally for a long time can give a blue-grey colour to the skin, known as argyria. Slides were shown of Rosemary Jacobs and Stan Jones, who both developed this and the condition is not reversible. Dr. McCann finally described some of the research being done by his own research team in NUI Maynooth. They are preparing novel synthetic complexes of silver, manganese and copper. The work involves binding organic molecules, known as ‘ligands’

l c 2 ) NH

Pt(

scieNce sPiN issue 47 Page 37


to the metals. Typical organic ligands being investigated are salicylic acid (a naturally occurring substance found in willow bark and which is used to make aspirin) as well as less well-known compounds such as imidazole and phendione. These complexes are being tested against pathogenic fungi, bacteria and cancer cells. Targets include MRSA, staphylococcus aurea and candida. It is found that not all of the silver complexes are active. Activity is related to the ligand present. In vivo studies were done on Galleria mellonella larvae (wax moth). The Maynooth research

group has found that most of the silver complexes were more effective than cis-platin in killing cancer cells. Malachi concluded by pointing out that, not only are the silver complexes more effective than cisplatin; but silver is cheaper than platinum and its complexes are relatively easy to synthesise. Some years before he died, Rosenberg said he was “euphoric” over the lifesaving capabilities of cisplatin. However, he also said it was “disturbing” that a discovery he had made more than 25 years earlier, was still being used for cancer treatment. “For years I’ve

Space spin offs

Energy on tap

SoMe of the spin offs from space can be unexpected. A study of icy eruptions on the moons of Saturn and Neptune has resulted in the discovery of materials that could be used as nanoswitches. Dr Dominic Fortes at University College London wanted to find out what caused these icy eruptions that had been observed by passing spacecraft. Methanol monohydrate was known to be involved, so, using the neutron scattering facilities at the Institut Laue-Langevin, Dr Fortes examined how this substance behaves when subjected to different temperatures and pressures. He found that methanol monohydrate expands enormously in one direction when heated to room temperature, while shrinking in the other two dimensions. However, when heated under an even pressure, there was expansion in two directions, and compression in the third. Materials that exhibit this peculiar behaviour are unusual. According to Prof Fortes, only about 15 such materials are known. The odd, but predictable behaviour, is potentially useful to scientists working on the development of nano devices. Such a material could be used to create nano switches, but as yet, not much is known about the underlying physics. Because methanol monohydrate has a simple molecular structure, scientists think that it could give them a better chance to understand the phenomenon. For Dr Fortes these possibilities came as a total surprise. “As a planetary geologist,” he said, “my focus is understanding the mechanisms behind volcanic eruptions in the outer solar system. If my results open doors for more applied science back on earth, that’s a bonus.”

been saying this is the first platinumbased drug we discovered,” he said. “It can’t possibly be the best one. It’s disappointing that the scientific community has not been able to find better ones.” Perhaps it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Malachi McCann and his team at Maynooth will find, maybe not a “magic bullet” but a “silver bullet” which will prove to be a most effective, yet relatively cheap treatment in the ongoing battle against cancer.

PUMPINg water around is one of the biggest costs for local authorities, and one of the reasons why so much has to be spent on energy is that the pressure is not all one way. Usually, we think of having to use energy to produce pressure, but a lot of energy is also used to reduce excess pressure. In a parallel with trains that generate energy while braking, engineers from TCD and Bangor University are working on a project aimed at harvesting energy from that excess pressure. Dr Aonghus McNabola from TCD’s School of engineering, explained that treated water is usually fed by gravity to communities from a central storage reservoir. “Where the pressure in water flow becomes too high,” he said, “a break pressure tank is commonly installed.” Such devices are common all over the developed world, and they simply dissipate the pressure, kinetic and potential energy, to the atmosphere. This is, literally, a waste of energy, and saving it would bring down the cost of our water supplies. The project has received over €500,000 in european Regional Development funding, and the researchers plan to attract a network of partners who can help commercialise the opportunity. A number of stakeholders have come in to support the project, including Dublin City Council and Welsh water supply companies. ATHLoNe Institute of Technology is offering industry access to rapid prototyping, physical testing, and analytical services through a research hub. The hub, which officially opened its doors in June fosters collaboration between 70 research students and college staff with a range of companies. Among the equipment available at the college is a scanning electron microscope, which can produce images of materials down to nanoscale levels. Access to this kind of equipment that has become essential to companies involved in electronics, healthcare and other high-tech sectors. The college has a high level of collaboration with industry and other research bodies. At AIT the research priorities are given as materials science, molecular biology encompassing biotechnology, toxicology, microbiology, analytical and synthetic chemistry, and software.

Heart value design

FoR HeR 3D model of the heart’s mitral valve, Fiona Griffin, a student at NUI galway, was presented with the top award in engineer Ireland’s student innovation competition. Cork IY students, Richarde Childs, Daniel Allen and Patrick Byrnes also received an award for their design of a ceramic blasting process which can be applied in the production of prosthetics. The competition was sponsored by Siemens whose communications manager, Michael o’Connor, remarked that there is obviously no shortage of engineering talent in the country.

SCIENCE SPIN Issue 47 Page 38


FLYING Back to the BeGINNING W

here do birds come from? The to emerge. By the mid-Cretaceous, answer to that seemed fairly about 100 million years ago, the pubic obvious to early 19th century scientists, bones of some animals had retreated. yet, for a long time afterwards, the link This was a significant development, as with flying reptiles was dismissed as it meant eggs could become bigger. In false. When the prominent authority, modern birds that bony restriction has Gerhaard Heilmann declared that lack been eliminated, so the egg and gut are of a ‘wish bone’ in the fossil record held in by connective tissue. proved that there was no connection, no Flying did not have to wait until one felt inclined to argue. birds, as we know them, took to the As Gareth Dyke and Gary Kaiser air. Gareth Dyke, points out that the point out in Living Dinosaurs, this flying pterosaurs “were one of the most dogmatic declaration has resulted in diverse groups of flying animals in the a rift that has persisted to this day. Cretaceous.” and they had conquered Feathers are also often thought of as Because of this rift, they argue that the the skies long before Archaeopteryx. No the exclusive property of birds, but this popular interest in living birds, of which doubt there were advantages in being may not be the case. Feathers provide there are about 10,000 species, is not able to snatch insect food on the wing. great insulation, and this in turn matched by a detailed knowledge could have facilitated the higher of their fossil history. metabolic rate that allows birds to In Living Dinosaurs, Dyke and flap off into the blue. Kaiser, aimed to address that A high metabolic rate issue, by bringing a number of requires a lot of oxygen, and experts together to present an in their chapter, Robert Berner overview of what is currently and Peter Ward explain how known about the origin and the make up of the atmosphere evolution of birds. has had a big impact on animal Gareth Dyke is a vertebrate evolution. About 300 million palaeontologist at UCD, and years ago, there was a spike Gary Kaiser is a field biologist in oxygen levels, and shortly in Canada, and as editors they afterwards animals with their air have brought together another sace appeared. In the Devonian, 27 contributors who present their Fluctuations in oxygen has had a big influence on evolution. oxygen levels plummeted, and work in a range of related topics. as they observe, “the conquest of One of the amazingly detailed fossils from the Jiufotang While the historical gap land by vertebrates was stymied.” Formation in China. Pengornis, one of a large group common Another wave of diversification between living and long dead from the Early Cretaceous. birds has been closing, this is came millions of years later, when not just due to the discovery of during the Carboniferous, the tree many amazingly well preserved of life began branching out again, fossils. We are no longer so “riding on the wings of rising reliant on appearances. As the oxygen.” editors state, the transformation It appears that too much is in phylogenetics, and avian as bad as too little and when evolution in general, is due to our dinosaurs made their first entrance into a new era of cheaper appearance in the late Triassic, genomics. With better tools, it has oxygen levels were lower than become much easier to make the they are now. sort of connections that scientists Less oxygen may have meant could only guess at before. going up from four to two legs As we learn from this book, because it would have been easier bird-like animals have been to breathe. Whatever the reason, with us a long time. During jumping about on two legs is the Cretaceous dozens of small something that birds did inherit. feathered animals were running or hopping around the giant Tom Kennedy dinosaurs. Not only that, but they had wishbones, and they walked Living Dinosaurs, edited by on their toes. Gareth Dyke and Gary Kaiser. Not all of these were ancestral Wiley-Blackswell, Hardback to modern birds, so many fell 422pp. Stg£50 by the evolutionary way-side. However, the pattern had begun


Discovering the truth about Easter Island — a novel

E

aster Island is among the most isolated spots on Earth, yet somehow the first inhabitants were able to make their way across the vast Pacific ocean to settle there. Why they sailed so far, and why they then carved out hundreds of giant Moai statues, and what sort of disasters overtook the once thriving society are questions that have always added to the mystery of this strange island. Against that background, the novelist, Jennifer Vanderbes unfolds a great tale beginning with the arrival from England in the early years of the 20th century of an odd bunch of explorers. Professor Edward Beazley, Elsa, his wife of convenience, and her strange, childlike sister. They had set sail months before, and are so out of touch with the world that they do not know that Germany and Britain are at war.

They explore, and indeed make discoveries, but with the unlikely and surprising arrival of Vice Admiral Graf von Spee, the man Elsa had left when felt compelled by circumstances to marry Edward, their world begins to fall asunder. Von Spee, and his fleet of battleships landed at the island in an attempt to hide from the British, and in the confusion that follows, evidence of what may have happened the islanders is lost. The story moves on to more recent years with another arrival, this time a woman botanist, Greer, an expert on pollen analysis, so dedicated to her research that her back constantly ached from long hours bent over the microscope. In some ways her life had unhappy parallels with Elsa, not least being the belated realisation that she had been betrayed. Only after many years did Elsa accept that her husband and former mentor, had stolen her research results. On the island, Greer finds herself becoming part of a small community

Rock around Ireland In this full colour book Peadar McArdle introduces us to the rocks that make up Ireland and describes how they formed.

B9845

Paperback €15 Available from Dubarry Books in Galway, the GSI book store, or order on line from Science Spin. www.sciencespin.com

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SCIENCE SPIN Issue 47 Page 40 SCIENCE SPIN Issue 47 Page 40

of obsessively dedicated experts. The author’s description of this community, which could almost be set in any university department, is brilliant, and that’s one of the things that makes this novel so special. Jennifer Vanderbes captures the totally obsessive behaviour of scientists with amazing clarity. The author also has a great story to tell on how science helps to discover the truth about the island’s mysterious past. Naturally, Greer emerges as something of a heroine in providing answers to some of the questions that had been bothering everyone. Why, they had asked, had all those hundreds of statues been erected, and how had the islanders managed to knock them all down? In this novel scientific enquiry is an essential part of the plot to resolve mysteries that had continued to puzzle everyone since the first recorded landing on Easter day 1722, when the Dutch Admiral Jakob Roggoveen could not understand how the naked people he found there had been able to carve out and transport and erect over 800 of these statues, the largest being over 30 feet high. Tom Kennedy Easter Island by Jennifer Vanderbes was first published in 2004. Abacus, paperback.


IN NEWSAGENTS NATIONWIDE or SUBSCRIBE

Books from Albertine Kennedy Publishing Rock around Ireland Peadar McArdle shows us the structure of Ireland. paperback €15 Colour The science and art of colour explained by Margaret Franklin and Tom Kennedy Paperback €15 The Exemption Vera Hajnal has an extraordinary story to tell of survival through one of the world’s darkest periods. Hardback €25 St Vincent’s Fairview Aidan Collins describes the history and the literary associations. Softback €20 Bewley’s Hugh Oram account of how the café became a national institution in this facsimile of the original book. Paperback €12

.... and more to come. Watch out for new titles this year.

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