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Teagasc Research Insights Webinar Series: Viruses- The Fightback and the Future

On the latest Research Insights Webinar, Teagasc scientists from the Irish Coronavirus Sequencing Consortium discussed sequencing of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the identification of viral variants during the first and second waves of the pandemic. Looking to the future, Dr Olivia McAuliffe discussed the potential of bacterial viruses to improve food safety and quality.

It is almost a year since the first case of Covid-19 was reported in Ireland. Since then, thousands of people have fallen ill and died, while empty parks and streets reflect the nationwide lockdowns put in place to slow the spread of the virus. As more infections take place around the world, the likelihood increases of variants emerging that are more transmissible in humans. The Irish Coronavirus Sequencing Consortium is an SFI-funded collaboration between Teagasc and a number of other research institutions nationwide. Led by Prof Paul Cotter, Head of the Food Biosciences Department in Teagasc, the Consortium is tracking the genetic make-up of the SARS-CoV-2 variants that are circulating within Ireland.

Speaking on the Teagasc Research Insights Webinar, today, Wednesday, 17 February, Dr John Kenny explained how sequencing of the SARS-CoV-2 virus presents scientists with valuable insights into routes of entry of the virus into Ireland as well as its subsequent spread throughout the country. One of the key findings of the Consortium so far is the difference in variants between the first and second waves of the pandemic.

Dr John Kenny explains: “In conjunction with the All Ireland Infectious Disease study, sequencing data generated by the consortium allowed us to look at sequencing information of variants from hospitalised patients during the first and second wave of the pandemic. We were able to show that common variants differ between the two waves, and suggests multiple introductions of wave two variants from outside Ireland.”

Key to the work of the consortium is the availability of world-leading DNA sequencing facilities. During the webinar, Dr Fiona Crispie explained the science behind DNA sequencing and why Teagasc was ideally placed to support the national effort with its expertise and equipment at the DNA Sequencing Facility at Teagasc Moorepark.

Dr Fiona Crispie said: “DNA sequencing can be used for many applications in food and agricultural research, including using DNA sequencing to identify the good bacteria and viruses in our foods and living in our bodies. Our experience and expertise meant we could easily undertake the new methodologies involved in sequencing Sars-CoV-2 and led to Teagasc leading the Irish Coronavirus Sequencing Consortium, a group of scientists throughout the country involved in sequencing Sars-CoV2 variants.”

Looking beyond the Covid-19 pandemic, Teagasc scientists are researching the use of bacterial viruses to secure the future of food production in Ireland, in terms of both food quality and safety. During this Research Insights Webinar, Dr Olivia McAuliffe explained how bacterial viruses, called bacteriophages, can improve the safety of food by preventing the growth of pathogenic bacteria such as E. coli 0157 and Listeria. Although phage therapy predates antibiotics, it has come to the fore again as the world contends with the threat of antibiotic resistance. While positive results have been observed using bacteriophages in food production systems, regulators in the agri-food sector have not yet come to agreement on their use in consumer food products.

Dr Olivia McAuliffe explains: “Bacteriophages have a long history of use as antibacterial agents, but as a relatively new biocontrol technology in the modern era, education is vitally important for acceptance. Research into the efficacy and safety of these agents must continue if they are to be more broadly accepted for use in the food and agriculture sectors. Progress is most likely to be dictated by public health needs associated with antimicrobial resistance in the bacterial population, and researchers and regulators alike must be primed to address the issue.”

View the webinar recording and presentations here

Teagasc Research Insights is a series of webinars focused on addressing the challenges and opportunities in the agri-food sector and showcasing the latest in Teagasc’s research in these areas. These one-hour webinars are held fortnightly and are aimed at professionals in the agriculture and food industry, other researchers, media, farmers, policy makers, EU and other international researchers and professionals.

Find out more about the series and view previous webinars here