There have been plenty of scientific discoveries and achievements here in Trinity over the last year, with major chemistry breakthroughs, awards for creative campaigns and a landmark biological discovery in the area of Parkinson’s disease.
One of the biggest discoveries of the academic year, in December 2014, was in the Trinity’s Chemistry department, under the leadership of Professor Stephen Connon. The discovery has been referred to as the ‘cracking of the chirality code’ and could have a big effect on drug production in the future. Trinity chemists essentially discovered a way of working with peptides, a compound consisting of two or more amino acids linked in a chain, to create useful proteins which have important applications in drug development. The term ‘chirality’ refers to the left or right handed asymmetry of some molecules, often referred to as the ‘handedness’ of a molecule.
Amino acids, which are the molecules which Connon was working with, are usually asymmetric in form making either right or left handed molecules. Both ‘hands’ in the amino acids function in a similar manner to one another on their own, however, they tend behave differently when in the presence of another handed molecule. This poses great difficulty in drug development as the drugs affected by amino acid chirality are highly specific drugs with a low toxicity. This makes them very effective on patients, but, due to the chirality of amino acids, they may have unwanted side effects too. Connon and his team believe that may have found a way to work around this and their findings could therefore play an important role in drug development in the future.
In November 2014, Trinity biologists made another important breakthrough discovery in our understanding the protein ‘Parkin’, which regulates the repair and replacement of the nerve cells within our brains. Due to this discovery, we have a new outlook on how nerve cells die in patients affected by Parkinson’s disease. The College research group, led by Professor Seamus Martin, the Smurfit professor of medical genetics, has just published their findings in the highly renowned and internationally recognised Cell Press journal, ‘Cell Reports’.
Although it’s been known for many years that the mutation of Parkin can lead to an early onset form of Parkinson’s, our understanding of what the protein actually does inside cells remained a mystery. Now, however, Professor Martin and his colleagues have found that Parkin can set off the self-destruction of ‘injured’ nerve cells, when responding to specific types of cell damage by undergoing a controlled process of ‘cellular suicide’ known as apoptosis.
Using funding from Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and new research procedures, Professor Martin and his colleagues have found that the damage to the mitochondria, which act as ‘cellular battery packs’, triggers the activation of Parkin. This results in two different scenarios; the self-destruction or repair of the cell. Each outcome depends on the amount of damage inflicted on the mitochondria. These new findings suggest that one of the problems in Parkinson’s disease may be the failure of a patient’s body to clear away damaged nerve cells with faulty mitochondria and make way for healthy replacements. Instead, dysfunctional nerve cells could accumulate, which would effectively prevent the recruitment of new, healthy replacement cells.
DART of Physics
The Biology and Chemistry departments weren’t the only ones to achieve great success this academic year, as the European Commission honoured Trinity scientist Dr Shane Bergin, an investigator at Trinity College Dublin’s School of Physics and nanoscience institute CRANN, for his work on the ‘DARTofPhysics’ project in November 2014. Dr Bergin was awarded the European Commission’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions (MSCA) achievement award, recognising his contribution to communicating science in a fun and attractive manner, and inspiring the next generation in science.
The ‘DART of Physics’ project was based around a poster campaign about physics on Dublin’s DART trains – a mass outreach effort involving over 300 students and 50 scientists. The eye-catching posters caught commuters’ attention by inviting them to visit a website run by the project team so that they could begin, or continue, their ‘physics journey’.
There were numerous other exciting achievements in Trinity this year, including Dr Valeria Nicolosi’s nanotech grant, which she received to aid her in bridging the gap between nanotech research and the development of associated commercial applications. Another big event in the science calendar this year was the launch of a huge COMPADRE Plant matrix database of plant life histories in November 2014, which Trinity botanists played a leading role in putting together. It is believed that the database will have a leading role in our understanding of how climate change is affecting our world and also how increasing human populations are rapidly changing plant distributions.
Finally, Dr Shaun Bloomfield, along with a group of fellow research scientists, received funding for FLARECAST, a very advanced solar flare forecasting service. With this forecasting service, Dr Bloomfield hopes to accurately predict solar storms through extensive research into their origin. (You can read our interview with Dr. Bloomfield here.)