Young Cork scientists conduct experiment on biological memory

Students discover potential biological solution to unsustainable data storage approach in Ireland

Young scientists of today cannot be accused of lack of ambition; the endeavours of three Co Cork students who conducted a remarkable experiment on biological memory proves the point.

In their project for this year’s BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition, Leah Lordan, Clodagh O’Sullivan and Tomás Markey investigated “the growing and stimulation of human neural colonies”.

This was not an exercise dabbling in obscure science. The team from St Brogan’s College in Bandon wanted to identify opportunities for creating efficient biological artificial intelligence and data storage capability. They were conscious of how unsustainable current data storage is in Ireland, which accounts for 10 per cent of electricity usage, Leah explained.

“We wanted to find a more efficient way in nature,” Tomás added. They identified the potential learnings from biomimicry, exploiting engineering solutions that nature has provided down throughout evolution.


They went on to record electrical activity by stimulating neuron activity in cells to see if there was a long-lasting effect. Scientists in University College Cork provided the neurons from a bone tumour autopsy and “a human progenitor cell line”.

Critically, there was a significant and long-lasting effect, Clodagh said. This indicated an ability to control activity in cells so they can then code binary information into what is known as their “firing pattern”, ie encode data in a biological setting.

“It’s laying the foundation for biological neuron cultures as a means of storing data,” Tomas said. They were “extremely excited” that their work is potentially “something pretty big” and were already planning to build on it and enter the competition again next year, he added.

Third-year students, Caoimhe Green and Elissa Shiels, at Desmond College in Newcastle West, Co Limerick, also deployed a look-back approach by evaluating experiments attempting to measure the speed of light dating back to 1676.

They wanted to measure the speed of electromagnetic waves in the microwave portion of the spectrum “by measuring the spacing between hot spots in a microwave oven”. They set about measuring the speed of light using a standard microwave found in any home by irradiating slabs of chocolate but by removing the rotation plates so it could be concentrated on one point with some variation on times.

They then applied a famous equation, c=λf, and compared their figure with the “accepted value” of 299,792,458 metres per second established in 1983. Their result had an error rate of just 1.39 per cent, “which is very good when compared to many famous experiments”, Caoimhe said.

Restored wetlands over vast areas of the midlands will soon be playing a critical role in capturing carbon and helping Ireland cut its emissions. But three transition year students from Loreto Secondary School in Kilkenny have demonstrated how wetland plant species can also boost farmer income, by producing biogas and a fertiliser that compares favourably with commercial products.

Mindful of the cost of chemical fertilisers for farmers, Millie Gilsenan and cousins Sinead Carroll and Angela Carroll visited wetlands near Thurles to investigate natural options.

They then measured the volume of methane produced from a variety of wetland plant species during anaerobic digestion – in the absence of oxygen – and identified the highest producing species, Phragmites australis.

Its notable qualities, according to Sinead, are that “it can be harvested above the waterline, and the rest of the plant stays in the ground, and doesn’t have to be replanted”. What’s more, the natural residue, known as digestate, has strong nitrate, potassium and phosphorus levels. Its performance was confirmed with tests on basil plants, doubling the growth.

Judging continues early on Friday. This year’s winner of the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition will be announced at a ceremony later in the evening. The exhibition is open to the public until Saturday, with details found here.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times