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Our research

 

Zoology is the study of the form and function of animals in the broadest senses of those words. It considers the many roles of animals within the natural world. The department has a diverse array of active researchers addressing a wide range of Zoological questions. Our research can be broadly separated into organismal biology and molecular/cellular biology.

Our investigation of these subjects uses innovative techniques and methodologies such as immunology, stable isotopes, genetics, analytical chemistry, proteomics and numerical computation. In particular, our strengths lie in ecosystem ecology & biodiversity, evolution of behaviour and developmental biology.

 

We currently house eleven principal investigators, a host of postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers and are supported by a team of skilled technical staff. Much of our research is collaborative and we continue to maintain productive links with both academic and non-academic institutions at home and abroad.

 


Policy makers and ecologists must develop a more constructive dialogue to save the planet

 

Compass

An international consensus demands human impacts on the environment “sustain”, “maintain”, “conserve”, “protect”, “safeguard”, and “secure” it, keeping it within “safe ecological limits”. But, a new study by an international team of environmental scientists, led by Ian Donohue, Assistant Professor in the School of Natural Sciences, shows that policy makers have little idea what these terms mean or how to connect them to a wealth of ecological data and ideas. Progress on protecting our planet requires us to dispel this confusion, and the team have produced a framework to do just that. The research shows that we have a remarkably poor understanding of the impacts on stability of the characteristics that define many, perhaps all, of the most important elements of global change. It provides recommendations for theoreticians, empiricists and policymakers on how to better integrate the multidimensional nature of ecological stability into their research, policies and actions.

This research gained international attention in National GeographicGrist.orgScienceDaily, and  EurekAlert.



A proteomic investigation of hepatic resistance to Ascaris in a murine model.

 

Compass

A. lumbricoides is a parasitic nematode which is mainly found in low-socio economic settings. It is a neglected tropical disease, despite infecting 800 million people worldwide. Some people experience heavy worm burden while some people only experience mild infection. This project, a collaboration of Prof. Celia Holland and Gwendoline Deslyper from the School of Natural Sciences with Dr. James Carolan from Maynooth University, investigated the molecular reasons behind this difference. The authors used a previously developed mouse model, where one mouse strain represents heavy infection (C57BL/6J) and the other, more resistant strain (CBA/Ca), represents light infection.

Mice were infected with the porcine ascarid A. suum from which liver proteins were isolated and characterized at four days post infection. This research identified key differences between the two mouse strains both with and without infection, implicating the involvement of ‘reactive oxygen species’ (ROS). This group of molecules are chemically reactive and can kill certain bacteria and viruses. The authors believe that differences in ROS levels could be an explanation for the difference in worm burden observed in humans.

 


Marine and estuarine pollution

 

Time is in the eye of the beholder...

The marine environment is affected by a complex mixture of man-made and naturally occurring substances derived from a variety of sources such as via shipping, sewage or industrial discharges or through accidental or historic spills of hazardous substances. In addition some environmental pollutants can readily be transported long distances by air often being deposited to areas, which are remote from the main pollution sources.

Individual pollutants or a mix of chemicals can cause metabolic disorders, increases in diseases becoming more common, as well as having an adverse effect on population growth and on species reproduction potential. An example of this is the reproductive effects on dogwhelks, which were affected by the legacy of exposure to the biocide Tributyltin (TBT). TBT was widely used as an effective antifoulant on the hulls of ships and boats to prevent growth of aquatic organisms. While use of TBT has been phased out internationally, the effects are still evident, but have been diminishing over time. Professor James Wilson along with his collaborators, have recently shown integrated biological effects and chemical monitoring (including use of the novel tools) offer the potential for a more ecologically oriented approach to pollution monitoring and in further enhancing and supporting management actions in maintaining a sustainable marine environment.


Nutrients and grazers combine to benefit biodiversity

Herbivores and grassland biodiversity

Two wrongs do not make a right. But when it comes to the biodiversity of plants in grasslands, they just might. That is because two apparently negative impacts often controlled by humans - the use of fertiliser and the grazing of plant species by herbivores - combine to the benefit of biodiversity. Fertiliser reduces plant diversity but herbivore grazers help enhance diversity by ensuring dominant species don't steal all the sunlight. In a globally collaborative study published in Nature, scientists used the Nutrient Network, or 'NutNet', to help predict how grasslands around the world will respond to a changing environment. NutNet is a grass-roots campaign supported by scientists who volunteer their time and resources. There are now 75 sites around the world that are run by more than 100 scientists. The new Chair of Zoology, Professor Yvonne Buckley, will soon establish the first Irish site to add to NutNet's growing catchment area. In this study, NutNet scientists gathered data from 40 sites that spanned six continents. They set up research plots with and without added fertiliser, and with and without fences to keep out local herbivores such as deer, kangaroos, sheep and zebras. Every year since 2005, they have measured the amount of plant material grown, the amount of light reaching the ground, and the diversity of different plant species growing in the plots.

For more information please contact Yvonne Buckley at buckleyy@tcd.ie.

Borer et al. In press. Herbivores and nutrients control grassland plant diversity via light limitation. Nature. Available Online doi

Fertilisation destabilises grassland ecosystems on a global scale

NutNet Field Site

A recent paper in Nature co-authored by the new Chair of Zoology, Professor Yvonne Buckley, shows that fertilisation of grasslands breaks down the link between plant diversity and stable biomass production. In unfertilised grasslands, higher species diversity means that grassland production is more stable from year to year. This is due to asynchronicity in species responses to variation in the environment from year to year, so a bad year for one species is a good year for another species. Relatively stable production is therefore maintained by species compensating for each other. In fertilised grasslands, however, species responses to environmental conditions from year to year are more synchronous so a good year is good for many species and likewise a poor year is poor for many species so overall grassland production is more variable. This research represents the first time that such a large experiment has been conducted using naturally occurring sites, and was only made possible due to the formation of the Nutrient Network, also known as NutNet. Yvonne has recently won funding from the EU Marie-Curie grant system to establish the first Irish site to add to NutNet¹s growing number of sites. She hopes to assess long-term trends in plant species diversity and ecosystem stability, and explore extinctions, species invasions, and other important changes in national and international grasslands. For more information please contact Yvonne Buckley at buckleyy@tcd.ie.

Hautier et al. In press. Eutrophication weakens stabilizing effects of diversity in natural grasslands. Nature. Available Online doi

Ascaris, a parasite of global significance but why so neglected?

Ascaris the neglected parasite

Peter Hotez, the guru of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), has described ascariasis as the ultimate NTD, both because of its devastating impact on child health and the general lack of awareness of its true global importance. So why so neglected? Some of the reasons are common among the so-called geohelminths (a group to which Ascaris belongs) such as chronicity of morbidity and the challenge of parasite control in regions dominated by inadequate sanitation and poverty. However, the lack of a rodent animal model, in which the parasite completes its life cycle in a manner similar to humans, is an undoubted disadvantage as is the declining numbers of investigators that make Ascaris their focus. So the publication of an edited book entitled “Ascaris the neglected parasite” by Professor Celia Holland, is a call to arms, given that a book focused solely upon this ubiquitous infection has not been published for over twenty years. Chapters, written by top authors from all over the world, seeks to identify interesting, exciting and novel aspects that will stimulate renewed interest among readers from a broad range of disciplines. It also provides a blueprint of how a single parasite entity can engender interest in basic biology, clinical science, veterinary science, public health and epidemiology. Oneparticular strength of the book is the elegant illustration of how quantitative biology can contribute to public health policy.


Time is in the eye of the beholder

Time is in the eye of the beholder...

An international collaboration led by Dr Andrew Jackson and PhD student Kevin Healy including researchers from the University of Edinburgh and the University of St Andrews has shown that animals’ ability to perceive time is linked to their pace of life. The study which was published in the leading international journal Animal Behaviour, showed that small-bodied animals with fast metabolic rates, such as some birds, perceive more information in a unit of time, hence experiencing time more slowly than large bodied animals with slow metabolic rates, such as large turtles. The researchers took advantage of this phenomenon to explain the observed variation in time perception across a broad range of animals, showing that animals that would be expected to be agile possess the most refined ability to see time at high resolutions. Zoologist Dr Natalie Cooper and alumnus Dr Luke McNally were also involved in the study.


Biodiversity loss and ecosystem stability

image of lake Bogoria in Africa

Understanding how species extinctions affect the stability of ecosystems is fundamental to the prediction of future biodiversity loss and to ensuring the reliable provision of ecosystem services. Led by Dr Ian Donohue of the Department of Zoology, a team of researchers from the Trinity Centre for Biodiversity Research including principle investigator Dr Andrew Jackson, together with collaborators from Northern Ireland, Spain and Switzerland, found that the destabilising effect of biodiversity loss is likely to be considerably greater than thought previously. In their paper published in the leading ecology journal Ecology Letters, Dr. Donohue and colleagues demonstrate for the first time that different species contribute in different ways to the maintenance of stability in ecosystems. Their research indicates that we currently underestimate significantly the overall destabilizing effect of biodiversity loss and thus the true scale of the global extinction crisis that we face.


Primates and novel human diseases

image of monkey

Many devastating human infectious diseases, including HIV and malaria, originated in wild primates. New research by Dr Natalie Cooper of the School of Natural Sciences and the Trinity Centre for Biodiversity Research and her collaborators at Harvard aims to use information on how parasites are shared among primate species to determine which diseases may emerge in humans in the future. In a paper published in the top ecology journal Ecology Letters, Dr Cooper and colleagues showed that closely-related primate species tended to share the most parasites, but also that factors such as contact rates were important in determining how parasites were shared. They also found that viruses were far less specific in the types of primates they infected. This research implies that although novel human diseases are likely to originate in our close relatives, novel viruses may be transmitted by any species we have regular contact with, including domesticated animals and pests.



Last updated 23 March 2017 by SHASSETT@tcd.ie.