DCU scientist is using chemistry to protect the environment

15 Sep 2017

Dr Blánaid White, DCU. Image: Daire Hall

Dr Blánaid White of DCU is using analytical chemistry to help protect the environment and the food we eat. She spoke to Dr Claire O’Connell.

For Dr Blánaid White, being a scientist allows her to answer questions about the world around her. And she has been asking those questions since she was a child, growing up in Co Wexford, fascinated by wildlife and the natural landscape of her grandfather’s farm.

“I was always interested in why the bees loved the honeysuckle flowers, and how food grows,” said White, who is now an assistant professor at the School of Chemical Sciences in Dublin City University (DCU).

Today, she is using chemistry to find those answers and better understand how our environment works; whether it is figuring out how honey is affected by the flowers that bees visit, tracking and mitigating the effects of heavy-metal pollution, or even working out the economic value of biodiversity in Ireland. 

“We use chemistry, and particularly analytical chemistry, to understand our environment at an atomic and molecular level,” explained White. 

“By figuring out the chemical interactions that go on in our environment, we can work towards end points that are good for everyone, such as healthier plants and animals, a better protected environment, and foods with higher nutritional value.”

Bees and flowers have chemistry

Pollinators, such as bees, are key drivers of the food chain and White is working with a network of colleagues to find out more about bees in Ireland. “We want to know what kinds of flowers bees prefer to visit, and how the landscape and environment have an impact on the chemistry of the honey the bees produce,” said White, who is part of the Irish Bee and Pollinator Network. 

Of particular interest is the level of phenolic compounds in honey. These naturally occurring chemicals are antioxidants, explained White, and they are a measure of the ‘healthiness’ of the food.

“We have seen that bees do prefer particular types of flower, and that certain Irish honeys tend to have really high levels of phenolic compounds, which is something Ireland could market better internationally.”   

White has been looking at the phenolic profile of another Irish product, too: whiskey.

Phenolic compounds in casks migrate into whiskey as it is aged, lending flavour and colour to the beverage, she explained. “That was a really interesting project to work on; we were able to show how whiskies have different phenolic profiles and that’s important for their flavour characteristics.”

Heavy metals

However, chemical analysis can give us an insight into a more ominous side of the food chain, such as contamination with heavy metals.  

As a principal investigator at DCU’s Water Institute, White is leading a new €1.9m EU-funded Interreg project called Monitool, which will develop technology to passively monitor levels of heavy metals in waterways along the European Atlantic seaboard, from Scotland through Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal and the Canary Islands.

“Heavy metals in the environment can make their way into food sources, and, at the moment, the legislation dictates that you sample living organisms for heavy-metal levels in order to monitor contamination. We want to encourage more environmental sensing, so we will put passive samplers into seas and waterways, and collect samples that will be analysed across partner countries,” said White, who will direct the project.

“We want to develop capabilities in a network of labs and show that this kind of passive technology can be used to monitor the environment for heavy metals.”

On dry land, White is also keen to use chemistry to mitigate the effects of heavy metals. She is working with animal feed company Alltech to see how a selenium supplement can counter the heavy metal cadmium, which occurs naturally in some regions and can wind up getting into livestock feedstuffs.

We have shown that a biologically available form of selenium protects against DNA damage caused by cadmium, and we will shortly be publishing our findings about the chemistry of how that happens,” she said.

The big picture 

With all that insight into the hidden chemistry of life and the environment, it’s no surprise that White is an integral part of an ambitious project to work out the value of enhancing biodiversity in Ireland.

Called Farming and Natural Resources: Measures for Ecological Sustainability, or FARM-ECOS, the Teagasc-led project brings together biologists, chemists and economists to measure the impact of various tactics on biodiversity.

“That might be planting a strip of flowers along the side of a field of crops to encourage more pollinators that, in turn, will pollinate the crops,” explained White. “We are looking to measure the impacts of these kinds of steps and put an economic value on doing them.”

Her role in the project is to sample and characterise the chemistry, nutrients and microbial life of the soil across as many as 60 designated project sites around Ireland. “Because we can’t see into the soil, it’s easy to overlook it, but we need healthy and biodiverse soils if we want healthy food.” 

Look to the future

White is keen to keep the future of analytical chemistry in good working order, and she is part of a team organising a major Eurachem conference, which will take place in Dublin in May 2018. Discussions will centre on data integrity, quality and analysis. “Eurachem issues guideline documents in Europe and this is a high-level meeting, bringing people from 27 countries across Europe to Dublin,” she said.

Meanwhile she is encouraging school and college students to study analytical chemistry and bring on the next generation of question-answerers. “It’s an amazing opportunity to be able to think about something that is happening around you and then you get the chance to figure out how it all works.”

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication