Underpinning Bioscience Research

Innovative, ‘blue-skies’ research by researchers in this theme typically provides the initial spark that propels an effective cycle of new ideas and discoveries, along with ground-breaking technological innovations. This underpinning biosciences research provides new knowledge, leads to the more thorough understanding of the fundamental mechanisms of biological processes and is critical to effective research in the areas of Personalised & Translational Medicine as well as One Health.

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Wolfe Laboratory: Genomic Evolution

Candida krusei is a drug-resistant yeast species and one of the five most prevalent causes of clinical yeast infections. It responsible for significant levels of morbidity and mortality in immunocompromised patients. By contrast, a yeast species called Pichia kudriavzevii has been considered to be safe because it has been used for centuries to make food products such as fermented cassava and cacao, fermented milk, and maize beverages. It also has a growing role in biotechnology for the production of bioethanol and high-value chemicals. But to date, relatively little genetic or genomic investigation has been carried out on strains of C. krusei and P. kudriavzevii.

To address this gap in knowledge, a team led by Professor Kenneth Wolfe sequenced the genomes of 30 clinical and environmental strains of these two species. The results show conclusively that they are the same species, with genomes that are 99.6% identical in DNA sequence. Moreover, the two species show similar levels of resistance to antifungal drugs. The findings suggest that industrial yeast strains are capable of causing disease in humans, and caution may be needed in the use of drug-resistant P. kudriavzevii strains for biotechnology and food applications.

Read more: Yeast species used in food industry causes disease in humans

Higgins Laboratory: Clustal - Multiple Sequence Alignment

Professor Des Higgins has been working in the areas of bioinformatics and molecular evolution since 1985, predominantly on methods and software for DNA and protein sequence alignment.

In 1988, he developed the original Clustal  programme for aligning protein sequences, which has made an exceptional impact in the field. The papers describing Clustal are among the most highly cited bioinformatics papers ever. One of the innovations of that programme was that the algorithm was designed to work on personal computers, which greatly increased its use among scientists and has meant it could be used in laboratories everywhere; today it is considered the industry standard.

In the last few years, with funding from Science Foundation Ireland, his laboratory has developed and released Clustal Omega, providing a new generation of alignment software scaled to cope with the enormous datasets that modern science can effortlessly generate. His research group in the UCD Conway Institute currently works on developing new bioinformatics and statistical tools for evolutionary biologists and addresses molecular evolutionary questions using bioinformatics approaches.

In 2016, Professor Higgins received the Kimura Motoo award in recognition of his significant contributions to the advancement of evolutionary biology, and to the field of molecular phylogeny specifically.