It's a bug's life for young Cork scientists

Thu, Jan 10, 2013, 00:00

Choose your seat carefully the next time you’re in a cafe or pub equipped with ceiling-mounted air conditioning units. You may be exposing yourself to lots of unexpected bugs.

Transition year students Orla O’Shea, Niamh Gleeson and Niamh Hogan from Coláiste Choilm Cork decided to examine whether these units really harboured potentially harmful bacteria such as staph and strep.

All had heard anecdotal stories of people becoming ill after being on aircraft and developing Legionnaires Disease from hotel air conditioning systems. They decided to test this theory.

They placed Petri dishes inside units in shops, petrol stations and pharmacies for two minutes, allowing the nutrient surface to be exposed to any bacteria present.

They exposed 150 dishes: all came up with high levels of both staph and strep bacteria. In comparison, control dishes exposed in a similar way where there were no air conditioning units came up negative.

The three plan to take the research further. “We want to create more hygienic filters, ” said Ms Hogan, by adding UV sterilisation or something similar.

Hedging the issue

Meanwhile, Jack Lyons, also a transition year student at Coláiste Choilm, focused on bugs of a different kind. He was using beetles as an indicator of biodiversity. “I was trying to see how the management of hedgerows affected biodiversity,” he explained.

He looked at regularly cut hedges, irregularly cut and overgrown hedgerows. He redesigned beetle-catching traps so the insects were not killed during sampling and placed 120 of them to get a wide sample at the locations under study.

Unexpectedly, the “natural” overgrown hedgerow supported the lowest number of beetles recovered, just 21 per cent.

Irregularly cut hedges weren’t much better, at 26 per cent, but the regularly cut hedges yielded 53 per cent of beetle samples.

Beetles lay eggs in the soil and he theorised the maintained hedges allowed more rain water to moisten the soil, an idea that was supported by biodiversity specialists at Teagasc, he said.

He would like to continue his research into next year’s exhibition.

Music by Irish indie folk duet The Heathers and pyrotechnics from the Science Museum, London helped kick off the exhibition yesterday afternoon. BT head Colm O’Neill congratulated the students on reaching the final stages of the exhibition.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny arrived later in the afternoon and was mobbed by the students. Judging continues today, with the young scientist award to be presented tomorrow evening.