Academics working in this area:
Understanding the Biology of Disease and Potential New Treatments
Figuring out the biology that underpins disease can help point towards new and more effective treatments. At Maynooth University we are interested in the immune system and how it protects against infection and promotes healing, but also how immune dysfunction can feed into disease.
We have a strong interest in the innate immune system, which represents the body’s ‘front-line’ defence against would-be invaders such as viruses, bacteria and other disease-causing organisms. We want to find out more about how that process works at a molecular and cellular level when you are first exposed to an infection.
We are also looking at the role of the innate immune system in auto-immune conditions, where the body starts to break down its own tissues. Research at Maynooth University has recently identified an important gene in the body’s response to viruses; when the gene is switched on it acts as a molecular brake to stop the body overdoing the protective response. The identification of this gene could open up new therapeutic avenues for auto-immune diseases such as multiple sclerosis and lupus.
A key theme in Maynooth University is to look at new ways to actively boost the body’s ability to fight infection and prevent chronic disease through vaccines, molecules and cell-based therapies that can ‘modulate’ the immune system and inform or fine-tune the body’s response to threat.
We are digging into the biochemistry of disease too - research at Maynooth University has identified key changes that occur in muscle cells in lab model of the inherited, progressive wasting disease Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. And in diabetes, we are looking at the importance of receptors in cell membranes in the development of the disease, with a view to identifying potential ways to block them.
Microbes that pack a mighty punch
In biology, being small is no obstacle to success. In fact, bacteria and fungi (including yeast) have been living on the planet for billions of years.
Some of these tiny organisms are helpful for humans. We have used yeast in brewing and baking for thousands of years, and today yeast cells offer a ‘model’ for researchers to study many molecular processes that sustain life. At Maynooth University we use yeast as a testbed to find out more about how proteins fold as they are made in the cells. This is important to understand, because when proteins don’t fold properly they often don’t work properly, and this can be a factor in disease.
Some microbes are less helpful to humans, and in Maynooth University we are particularly interested in clinically important species of fungi such as Aspergillus fumigatus, which can cause serious lung infections in people who are immunocompromised due to illness or transplant. At Maynooth University we are carrying out research to understand what makes Aspergillus fumigatus a pathogen, or disease-causing organism, with a view to being better able to diagnose and potentially treat infection.
Candida albicans is another fungus that can cause serious problems in susceptible patients - if the fungus gets into the blood supply, the infection can even be fatal. We look at the genetics of Candida albicans and related species to figure out which genes are linked with virulence, and this could point the way to new drug targets for infection.
Microbes may also have a role to play in the skin condition rosacea. Maynooth University is involved in research that suggests bacteria carried in the guts of mites that live in the skin could trigger inflammation, resulting in the redness experienced by people with the condition.
Life Through an Evolutionary Lens
Life has been on Earth for billions of years. And over that time life has evolved - flourishing during some periods while at other times squeezing through the bottlenecks of mass extinction events that change the nature of the planet’s biodiversity.
At Maynooth University we are interested in the diversity of life, and the various changes that occurred over many millions of years. We are using new technical methods to analyse how the genomes and biochemistry of bacteria, yeast and animals changed, and by looking through this evolutionary lens we want to get a better understanding of life and of disease processes.
Our research at Maynooth University has recently made important contributions to the field of evolution. We identified an event around two billion years ago that enabled the evolution of eukaryotic and multi-cellular organisms, including humans. And we have traced the origin of vision in animals to around 700 million years ago during a relatively rapid burst of evolutionary development.
A major focus of our research is on the relevance of genomic evolution to human health. We are looking at the evolution of antibiotic resistance, and in particular horizontal gene transfer in bacteria. We track how genes ‘jump’ from one strain to another in a manner that allows bacteria to adapt to their environment and develop resistance to antibiotics. Our research also looks at genetic changes in influenza viruses and their impact on human and bird populations. And we are looking at the origin of adaptive genes in clinically important fungi that allow them to be virulent disease-causing organisms in humans.
Our evolutionary biology and genetics research is recognised through publications in high-impact journals, including PNAS, Nature and Science. We have also developed new methods - in particular we apply network approaches used in maths and engineering to analyse evolutionary data. This has brought new tools for analysis to the international discipline of evolutionary bioinformatics.
Academics working in this area:
Life in a Time of Climate Change
Climate change is an enormous challenge for life on Earth, and for human society. At Maynooth University we recognise that climate change will have an impact on crops and native biodiversity and the ability to control pests and diseases. So we are exploring many aspects of environmental biology, the potential impacts of climate change and strategies to ameliorate them.
We are particularly interested in sustainable crop development. As the world’s human population grows and as climate change increases the stresses on plants in some parts of the world, food security will become an even more pressing global issue. So we are exploring sustainable approaches to optimising food production.
Most of the world's foods are flower-based products - seeds and fruits. We are interested in how environmental factors can influence reproductive strategies within flowering plant populations.
One strand of our research focuses on the genetic transformation of plants to improve resilience, and how genes can be incorporated into plants in an environmentally safe manner. We are exploring transformation of the chloroplast, a ‘compartment’ within plant cells, in order to avoid the potential spread of genetic modification through pollen. We are looking at ways that plant cells can be modified to produce beneficial proteins for harvest. And for genetically modified crops where the spread of genes could be a risk, we are assessing the physical distances that would be needed between plants to minimise genes ‘escaping’ from one population to another.
We have a particular interest in biological pest control, which uses living organisms to control crop pests. Our research is investigating the use of roundworms, or nematodes, parasitic wasps and fungi to control pine weevil infestation in conifer forests, we are exploring the use of fungal species to control diseases that attack edible mushroom crops and the use of nematodes to protect soft fruit crops from insect attack.
Bees are important pollinators of crops, and we are looking to boost the health of bees with a substance that can be added to hives. It’s hoped that this simple step will reap enormous returns in the protection of food crops, and the research is being commercialised through Maynooth University spin-out company Beemune.
And to understand the historical effects of climate change on diversity, we are analysing the impact of the last Ice Age on plant species around 15,000 years ago, identifying how plants adapted and fared in Ireland.