Minister for Science & Innovation Jimmy Devins Opens Symposium Celebrating 50 years of Genetics at TCD

Posted on: 19 September 2008

On the occasion of the opening of  the public symposium,  The Secret of Life – Genetics in the 21st Century, marking the  50th anniversary  of genetics at Trinity College Dublin which takes place on September 20th, 2008 (Ballsbridge Inn (formerly Jury’s) Pembroke Road, Dublin 4, 11am), Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation, Dr Jimmy Devins stated the following: 

“It is 50 years since a grant of £15,000 from the Irish Sugar Company saw the establishment of the Department of Genetics in TCD.  As the only department of genetics in the country, it has pioneered the use of genetic engineering in Ireland, as well as playing a significant role in establishing biotechnology research here, through linkages with companies such as BioCon, NovoNordisk and Schering Plough”.


“Over the years, the work of the Genetics Department has grown in tandem with the development of genetics itself, and from an initial interest in animal and plant breeding and bacterial genetics, the department now drives teaching and research in human and medical genetics, bioinformatics, molecular evolution and neurogenetics”.

“The symposium today celebrates the achievements of the staff and students of the Department over the last half-century, but more importantly, it looks forward to the future of genetics, the future work of the Smurfit Institute, and the future impact of the advances being made in the field of genetics”.

In the public symposium The Secret of Life – Genetics in the 21st Century, TCD’s Smurfit Institute of Genetics has assembled a group of the following leading scientists who will  address  a range of  developments in the field:

Professor Steve Jones (University College London) will discuss recent advances in our understanding of evolution and address our relationship with our closest ancestors and ask the question “are we still evolving ?”.  Knowing the complete genome sequence of an individual can identify susceptibilities to disease facilitating prophylactic action.

Dr Brian Naughton (also a graduate of the Genetics Department TCD and co-founder of 23andMe) will discuss the service provided by 23andMe whereby a person’s genome can be screened for genes associated with particular traits including (but not restricted to) disease susceptibility.  The ability to acquire such information commercially raises issues such as its reliability, whether it should be made available to a person outside a clinical context, who should have access to this information and whether one is obliged to inform an insurance company when applying for a loan/mortgage?  Because of its size and complexity, the genome sequence of each individual (be it cow or human) is unique, allowing their identification unambiguously.

Rockne Harmon (San Francisco District Attorney’s Office) will address how the unique nature of each genome sequence is used in the area of forensic science:  where biological material collected at a crime scene can be analysed to associate or exclude individuals from a crime scene.  He will also address how this technology is being used to exonerate individuals of crimes they were convicted of but could not have committed.

Professor Patrick Cunningham (Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government) will address how the technology being used in forensic science is also being used to trace domestic animals in the human food chain.  He will also discuss the contribution of genetics to enhancing crop and livestock production.  Genetics also contributes to our understanding of disease. Many millions have died from AIDS and more than 33 million are currently infected with the virus.  This disease appeared suddenly in the 1980s, prompting speculation as to its origins.

Professor Paul Sharp (University of Edinburgh) will show how genetics has contributed to our very detailed knowledge of where this virus originated.  This knowledge can inform us of potential sources of future pandemics and how they are likely to progress.  Modern genetics has had a profound impact on the diagnosis and treatment of disease.  Much recent attention has focused on stem cells and their potential in treatment of disease.

Professor Steve Minger (Kings College London) will explain the nature and biological significance of stem cells.  He will discuss the difference between embryonic and somatic stem cells and important ethical issues surrounding the use of embryonic stem cells.  He will outline recent advances in stem cell technology and explain the potential of stem cells in the treatment of disease.