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The Investigators TV Series looks at Crops of the Future

The second series of "The Investigators" TV programme, which focuses on Ireland’s scientific contribution to the world will be aired on RTÉ 1, beginning on Thursday 6 November 2008.

Ireland’s scientific researchers are punching above their weight on the world stage and are quietly making a significant contribution to the improvement of our daily lives. This TV series will look at some of the most interesting research projects that are currently underway and assess the impact they may have in the future.

A diverse range of projects are examined ranging from the identification of a protein that may help to arrest and even reverse the onset of Alzheimer’s disease to the design of a camera that can picture an event in space that happened billions of years ago.

Crops of the future

On November 13, Teagasc researchers feature in an episode on ‘Crops of the Future’. Ireland’s agricultural economy is changing. Where once Irish crops were used almost exclusively for food, fuel and animal feed, there is now an array of new possibilities. New technologies and dedicated research into new areas has opened up new horizons for crop growers in areas such as human health. In the United Nations’ ‘International Year of the Potato’ it is appropriate that developments in genetic mapping will allow Irish researchers to develop new breeds of blight-resistant potatoes, which are being exported all over the world. As our knowledge of the genomes of a large variety of crops increases so does the capacity for crops to play key roles in people’s health and the environment.

Potato breeding

Denis Griffin is one of Ireland’s key potato breeders. Based at Teagasc’s Crops Research Centre in Oak Park, Carlow, his work involves a long and intricate process which begins with the identification of notable or desirable characteristics in potato breeds. Over a period of 10 to 12 years the team at Teagasc carefully crosses breeds, produces the initial seeds, grows thousands of seedlings and finally whittles them down to 1 or 2 plants which go on to become varieties. Checks for key positive and negative traits are done and the process begins once again.

In collaboration with Dan Milbourne, a plant geneticist also based at Oak Park, key traits in potatoes are identified in a much quicker way using information gained by the ongoing mapping of the potato genome. Working together they can identify key traits in the potato, both for the consumer in terms of taste and cooking styles, but also for farmers in terms of their natural resistance to certain airborne blights and pesticides.


Nigel Bunton & Eimear Gallagher are researchers working at the Teagasc Ashtown Food Research Centre. They are continually looking at new ways to improve the inherent nutritional value of our foods. Barley is one of Ireland’s most important crops and contains a compound known as beta glucan, which has important properties that can help to lower cholesterol and aid the immune system. Nigel Brunton’s research has found that in fact there are over four times the amount of this compound in the barley ends, which are normally thrown away. For Nigel and his team in Teagasc the challenge now is to find ways to incorporate this compound into breads that the public will want to buy.

Though the use of plants as ‘factories’ for pharmaceuticals or medicinal compounds is a relatively new field known as ‘pharming’ – Phil Dix, NUI Maynooth, is already classed as a world leader because of his work on the unique system of developing and growing key proteins in the chloroplast of tobacco plants, which could help in the production of a vaccine for HIV/AIDS. Matthew McCabe, who is currently working in Teagasc, Grange Research Centre is also interviewed as one of the key researchers on this project.

Eric Donald | alfa
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