Ireland has 'started to talk' to CERN about membership - Institute's director general

Saturday 14 July 2012 22.20
Dr Rolf-Dieter Heuer told delegates that CERN's recent discovery is extremely significant
Dr Rolf-Dieter Heuer told delegates that CERN's recent discovery is extremely significant

The Government has “started to talk” to CERN about becoming a member of the scientific research institute, according to the group’s director general.

Dr Rolf-Dieter Heuer was questioned on the topic as part of his keynote address at ESOF 2012, but was cautious in the language he used on the matter.

“The word ‘approached’ I think is the wrong one,” he told delegates in Dublin’s Convention Centre. “We have started to talk about it.”

Yesterday Dr Heuer sparked a debate within scientific and political circles when he said he felt Irish scientists should be involved in the Swiss-based research project.

The Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government, Prof Patrick Cunningham said he would like to see Ireland join eventually but at a cost of €20-30m per year there was no money to do so at the moment.

However Dr Heuer suggested the cost of membership was actually around €11m per year, while the country could also become a part-member for just €1m per annum.

Ireland is the only country in western Europe not partaking in CERN’s work. A by-product of this is that Irish scientists cannot work there and Irish companies cannot bid for contracts coming from the centre.

As part of his address at ESOF 2012, Dr Heuer told delegates about the work of CERN and its Large Hadron Collider, which is being used to find out more about the origins of the universe.

Dr Heuer’s address came just ten days after CERN announced its discovery of what may well be the elusive Higgs boson particle, which is an important part of understanding how mass is created.

Dr Heuer said as a layman he would say CERN had discovered the particle but as a scientist he is careful to hold his judgement.

He said the discovery of the Higgs boson could be a major leap forward for science, particularly in its attempts to understand dark matter.

Renowned biologist Dr Craig Venter gave a keynote address to delegates in the evening, where he spoke about his work in mapping and understanding DNA.

He detailed his institute’s work in creating synthetic chromosomes and the potential uses it could have in creating medicines and vaccines.

As it happened - Dr Craig Venter's address:

1907 Dr Craig Venter has concluded his keynote address.

1906 A human's genome goes through constant changes, so having a single map of your sequence would not be accurate.

1904 It would not be a huge leap to work with multi-cell organisms, says Venter.

However he said as there is likely to be 1bn more humans on the planet in 11 years he does not want to help create more of them.

He said the same applies to the likes of cows.

1903 A delegate asks if they might be able to create an animal's genome in the future.

Venter says he thinks anything is possible and would not want to suggest that something could not be done.

1858 Venter is asked about commercial companies that offer the mapping of parts of the genome.

He says some do a good job and provide a good education but are limited and results should be taken with a grain of salt.

1856 The genes created are designed with so-called "suicide genes" that ensure they cannot survive outside the laboratory.

Venter says they do not want to alter the real environment and so this is important.

1854 Venter is talking about the security aspects of their work, such as biological containment and the threat of biological warfare.

1853 They are working to engineer algie for fuel creation and even using it to replace the harvesting of fish for oil.

1852 Digital and biology are becoming one and the same, says Venter.

He said in the future people could have a box connected to their computer that could produce chromosomes or vaccines based on a digital, synthetic creation.

1851 Venter says he thinks they are "pandemic ready" as they can synthesise a strand of the flu within 12 hours.

He says he believes they could do this before the WHO had even met to discuss any future outbreak.

1848 Venter's institute is trying to develop new cells with specific functions, like capturing energy from sunlight or converting CO2 gases.

The first genome vaccine is also coming on the market in Europe, while it is being researched as a way of tackling influenza.

1847 Even in the most simple cell on the planet there are 21 genes that they have not yet figured out the function of.

All they know is that if the gene is taken out, the cell dies.

1845 There are 'stop codes' within the DNA being produced - this ensures the various quotes are not actual parts of the sequence and so cannot interfere with the chromosome's behaviour.

1844 Venter's institute got a letter from James Joyce's estate asking them if they had permission to use his quote in their DNA sequence.

He said it was within fair use so they weren't too worried about the letter.

1842 A synthetic species it created has its own URL embedded within its DNA.

Venter says as it's the first species to have a computer as a parent it's important to do this.

1840 Venter's institute started to 'watermark' synthetic genomes to prove they were manufactured - but also to track them.

One genome is packed with literary quotes, including one from James Joyce.

1834 "Life is a DNA software system; you change the software, you change the species"

1833 When the synthetic chromosome was transplanted into a cell, the cell began to produce protein for it.

Ultimately this new chromosome took over the cell and began to multiply, so you had a natural cell reproducing a synthetic chromosome.

1832 The next step was to create a synthetic chromosome. Venter says the big question here is how you 'boot-up' the gene.

1831 The synthesising of genomes has been perfected and can now be automated, so it can go from computer code to an actual genome with very little human interaction.

1828 The synthetic microbe was injected into E. Coli, which immediately identified it as a genome and began to use it in the production of the virus.

1827 Venter is now talking about their synthesising of a genome and the hurdles they faced in doing so.

1822 It's now very easy to take a skin sample and, with some manipulation, turn it into different types of stem cells.

1821 We are in the "linear phases of discovery" says Venter and it is now easier than ever to find new microbes and genomes.

1820 Air samples taken in hospitals were found to be loaded with bacteria.

1818 Indoor air samples were taken in New York and most of the DNA found was human, the second most common DNA was rodent.

When they went outdoors, nearly half of the DNA in the air came from rodents. Less than 20% was human.

1816 A lot of iron was found in the air in New York when shotgun sequencing was used there- the source of this is not known.

1815 Venter's institute use 'Shotgun sequencing' to decode genomes - this is a method that was criticised as inaccurate at first but is now the scientific standard.

1812 Even in areas where they were not expecting to find much activity, the expedition found millions of new microbes says Venter.

1810 Venter is talking about his recent study, which he said allowed him to sail around the world while also conducting scientific experiments. 

1808 DNA sequencing on its own will not tell you very much.

Venter says he wants a "digitised phenotype" of at least 10,000, which would give details on every part of a person's make-up.

This would help give a clear understanding for disease predictions.

1807 450-550 chemicals have been detected in the blood stream - at present it is not known what they are doing or what impact they have on people.

1804 Alcohol does not damage the liver directly - instead it triggers the release of a toxic microbe that does the organ damage.

Venter - somewhat tongue in cheek - suggests fortifying alcohol with antibiotics to kill off this microbe and make drinking less of a health risk.

1803 Pharmaceutical companies are now changing to a new model where they develop high-priced niche drugs that help lower percentage people, rather than 'blockbuster' drugs that help many.

1800 There are a variety of ways of separating parental genes to see what elements people inherited from their respective parents.

1759 That 1-3% variation even exists when comparing American, African and Asian genes.

However there have greater variations detected between different genomes within Africa, which is currently being researched.

1758 Genome research shows that there is a 1-3% difference between unrelated humans.

1756 Labs used to be huge - Venter's institute even had to build the third largest civilian computer in 1999 to process the huge swathes of information coming from decoding genomes.

Now a small computer can do the job in two hours - Venter says it can do it for a cost of just $1,000.

1754 The mapping of genomes has scaled up at a rapid pace, says Venter. 

In 1995 a genome was mapped for the first time ever; five years later the first human genome was mapped.

1752 Scientists are turning human DNA from analogue into digital 1s and 0s, says Venter, but the research is still in its early stages.

1751 Venter's organisation is working on the world's first carbon-neutral research institute in California.

1749 Dr Venter is also the first person to have his entire genome mapped.

1748 Dr Venter is the first to have created synthetic life, says Mark Ferguson.

1742 Mark Ferguson, Director General, Science Foundation Ireland is introducing Dr Craig Venter.

As it happened - Dr Rolf-Dieter Heuer's address:

1553 Dr Heuer has concluded his address to delegates.

1549 Heuer paraphrases Michael Faraday, who was asked by a British minister what his discoveries could be used for.

"Honestly I do not know but maybe some day you can tax it."

1548 Heuer is asked if there is any real-world applications that could come from the Higgs boson discovery.

He tells the audience member to ask him in many years time.

He said CERN is conducting curiosity-based research and they do not even understand what they have discovered yet. 

1546 A member of the audience asked if he had been approached by the Irish Government about CERN membership.

He said he would not describe it as an approach but that there have been discussions about it.

1544 Heuer said when the universe cooled it could no longer produce Higgs bosons but now the LHC means it can.

1542 It is very difficult to make CERN's work more visual and less mathematical, Heuer says.

He says they are getting better but it can be hard to explain and show people what they are doing.

1540 Heuer finishes his address by saying "the future is bright for dark matter.

He is now taking questions from the floor.

1539 The LHC has a clear timetable in place up to 2030, which includes it being shut down at certain points for upgrades and changes.

1538 CERN's discovery was extremely significant, says Heuer, which is why everyone got so excited. 

1537 The discovered particle could be part of a family of Higgs boson, say Heuer.

However the discovery could be the first scalar particle discovery and could open the door to dark matter and dark energy.

1536 As a layman Heuer would say "we have it", as a scientists he has to ask "what do we have?"

1534 It took 30 years to restrict the mass range where the Higgs boson could operate.

Within one year the LHC had eliminated the remaining range signals and identified the correct one.

1532 Heuer likens finding the Higgs boson to trying to find a particular type of snowflake in the middle of a snow storm.

There is a lot of background noise, he says, and the trick is to identify and isolate the particle you are seeking.

1530 73% of the universe is in mysterious "dark energy" - Heuer hopes CERN will be involved in the first dark universe discovery.

1528 Heuer cites the example of anti-matter, which is a relatively recent discovery but is now used in medical diagnosis.

1527 New scientific discovery can become very useful but at the point of discovery you cannot know how or when.

This is something politicians need to understand, says Heuer.

1526 It is not known if there is just one type of dark matter, or if it consists of a variety of types of matter like the rest of the universe.

1525 Dark matter has to have had a critical role in the shaping of the early universe, says Heuer.

Very little is known about dark matter, however, but the LHC may be the best way to study it. 

1523 CERN is now entering new territory where there are a number of questions.

- What is mass?

- Why is there no more anti-matter?

- What was matter like in the first moments of the universe?

- What is 96% of the universe made up of?

1521 There is "fantastic agreement" between the theory of the Standard Model and the results coming out of the LHC experiments.

1519 Heuer says finding 'new physics' particles is like finding a needle in a number of haystacks - where the haystacks themselves are made up of needles.

1518 There are ten orders of magitude between 'Ordinary physics' and 'new physics' (which includes the Higgs boson) in terms of the ability to produce something in the lab. This makes it extremely hard to find and study.

1516 CERN is now trying to get its scientists to work with artists.

1515 Heuer says LHC is engineering art. He shows a stage from an opera which resembles the collider's design.

1513 Other research units at CERN use the LHC to study the results of colliding lead ions and search for an understanding of anti-matter.

1512 Heuer advises people to never believe scientific results that come from one place - for that reason CERN has two main units to analyse the results of the LHC.

1510 The LHC is the coldest place in the universe - colder than space, says Heuer.

However it is also the hottest place, as the proton collisions creates heat greater than that produced by the Sun. 

1509 Heuer is explaining how the Large Hadron Collider works.

It uses two pipes within a magnetic field to fire protons at each other, after which it measures the resulting matter.

1508 We know very little about dark matter and almost nothing about dark energy, says Heuer.

The LHC will help humans understand this part of the universe, however.

1506 Heuer has used an interesting analogy to explain the Higgs boson.

He has likened it to a room full of journalists who would let some (lesser-known) people pass through without interruption but gather around other (famous) people, effectively giving them mass.

1503 The Standard Model only relates to massless objects - the origin of mass of elementary particles is missing from the equation.

This is where Higgs' boson theory comes into play. 

1502 The Standard Model is a fantastic achievement but also extremely frustrating, says Heuer.

1500 Every piece of matter has a corresponding anti-matter, which anihalate each other when they meet.

Heuer says this creates the question - how do we exist?

1456 Humans consist of just three types of particle - up quarks, down quarks and electrons.

However there are two other "families" of particle in nature, of which there is very little known.

1455 Satellite allow us to look into the "large scales" of the universes history, like galaxies and stars.

To look into the "small scales" you need a very large microscope, says Heuer, which is effectively what the Large Hadron Collider is.

1452 Understanding the very first moments of the Big Bang is one of today's greatest scientific challenges, says Heuer.

1450 Heuer says the mission of CERN is research, innovation, education and unity.

1449 Dr. Ronan McNulty, School of Physics, University College Dublin is introducing Dr Rolf-Dieter Heuer.

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