Curiosity Calling: Bees, Boyle & Antibiotics

We were invited to indulge our curiosity this week in Dublin which inspired me to launch my new weekly column, Curiosity Calling. This week, I’m sharing my thoughts on the world around us as well as the future… inspired by conversations and news articles.

Look Around


From talking to Dr Dara Stanley, an Irish researcher investigating the impact of pesticides on bees in the University of London, I learnt that Irish bees are in decline and one third are threatened with extinction. There are 101 species of bee found in Ireland. These include the honeybee, 80 species of solitary bee and 20 species of bumblebee, Though in decline, Stanley pointed out that none of our bees are legally protected in any way.

In the Sunday Times today, I wrote about the recent heatwave which allowed honeybees to recover following huge losses this winter. Wild bee species were also impacted by the cold spring. Dr Una Fitzpatrick, an ecologist in the National Biodiversity Data Centre, told me that they noticed an 80% drop in May compared to the previous year. She compiles data from the Bumblebee Monitoring Scheme which is a citizen science project. Thankfully, volunteers who carry out monthly bee surveys reported increased numbers in their most recent reports in June with sightings returning to a similar level to last year. Fitzpatrick cautiously welcomes this greater abundance of bees.

So what can we do? Fitzpatrick said that people can help out by not having perfectly manicured gardens. Pollinators like wild flower meadows and hedgerows. Also, a number of pesticides were recently given a two-year ban by the EU to help prevent further losses across Europe.

Boyle Summer School

Eoin Gill, Director of Calmast, recently chatted to me about talks by Dublin-native Prof Liam Dolan, Head of the Department of Botany at Oxford University, and “mind doctor” Prof Ian Robertson of Trinity College. Both talks given at this year’s Boyle Summer School had a similar overarching theme according to Gill: our over-reliance on science to fix our problems.

Prof Dolan spoke about the challenge of increasing food production for a growing population. While science is needed for this, simple things like reducing the excess food we buy (which ends up in our black bins) can make a huge difference. Ireland’s most famous psychologist spoke about ageing and how we can do simple things, including exercises, to keep our minds active.

In my opinion, there are many areas where we have left science  to fix our problems rather than making small changes to our lifestyle. Though these adjustments may not completely fix worldwide problems like food shortage or declining bee populations (policy changes & new research are also needed), they are vital to ensure the problem is addressed properly.

Answering long-running questions

Trinity college physicians recently caused an international stir when they captured pitch (bitumen) drop from a funnel into a jar beneath after 69 years of waiting. They proved that although the substance appears to be a solid, it is in fact flowing (very very slowly).

This week, another question was answered by Irish scientists but this time it was a 20 year old genetic puzzle. The paper by PhD student Aoife Doherty and Prof James McInerney of NUI Maynooth was published online in the Molecular Biology and Evolution Journal last Wednesday. Using the Ensembl genome browser, they analysed the protein-coding sequences of 38 vertebrates for something that was shown only in a handful of vertebrate species previously.

Different combinations of nucleotides can often encode the same amino acids e.g. the codons TCC, TCA, TCT and TCG all encode Serine. These are known as synonymous codons. Doherty and McInerney were looking for patterns in these synonymous codons within the 38 vertebrates. They observed that certain codons were favoured over others and these were regularly observed along with more abundant matching tRNA genes. McInerney told me that this answers a 20 year old question about whether tiny selective pressures overcome genetic drift in vertebrates.

Doherty A, & McInerney JO (2013). Translational selection frequently overcomes genetic drift in shaping synonymous codon usage patterns in vertebrates. Molecular biology and evolution DOI: 10.1093/molbev/mst128

Forfás Pensions

The Government body responsible for science policy including the recent prioritization exercise spent 78% of its €51.4 million of last year’s Oireachtas grant on pensions. In its 2012 Annual Report, which was published last week, it stated that only 22 per cent of this funding was for expenditure on policy activities and corporate and shared services. This seems absolutely astonishing to me!

The Future

Aging Bats

Prof Emma Teeling brought live bats on stage during Dara O’Briain’s Science Club in a packed Mansion House, Dublin, on Friday. Having gone on a bat walk last month, it was great to be reacquainted with my new friends. Teeling used a graph to demonstrate that many bat species age much slower than other mammals when you compare their body masses. She is studying their genetic makeup to find answers to their longevity. These could be applied to help human health in the future.

Antibiotic Resistance (Read of the Week)

One of my favourite writers, Maryn McKenna, wrote a piece in last week’s Nature magazine about the spread of the little-known class of antibiotic-resistant bacteria: carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CREs). This is my read of the week as it outlines the problems within our current health system and its ability to deal with emerging threats posed by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. CREs were first identified 15 years ago but it is only now that Government agencies are sounding the alarm bells. This piece outlines a potential future where, without antibiotics, one in six people could die in surgery. A must read!