Three Dublin girls aged 17 and in fifth year in Loreto College, Balbriggan, are working to save Ireland’s common ash tree.
The trio, made up of twin sisters Erica and Abbigail O’Brien and their classmate Olivia O’Shea, won the prize for the runners-up group at this year’s BT Young Scientist with their project ‘Can we save the common ash?’.
Speaking to the Irish Farmers Journal, the trio described how they’ve had an interest in science, maths and botany for some time and have been involved in innovative science projects since early in secondary school.
Erica went to a TY botany course in Trinity last April and from this, the girls decided they wanted to turn back the clock on Ireland’s issue with ash dieback.
The girls found research which showed that two specific plant hormones were able to control the growth of the rust fungus on other plants.
They knew ash dieback was caused by an invasive fungus and decided to test if the hormones - jasmonic and salicylic acid - would have any impact on its growth.
The trio described how they got in touch with Teagasc, which afforded them access to its tree gene bank.
The girls inoculated three different ash genotype leaves, including two most commonly found in Ireland, with three different concentration combinations of the two acids at Teagasc Ashtown and then took them back to their school for analysis.
They found that at a ratio of two times salicylic acid to jasmonic acid, for the first genotype, ash dieback fungus growth was curtailed by as much as 78%.
The students said that while the results of their research are promising, they would need to “continue the project a bit further before testing trees”.
Erica said that at the BT Young Scientist exhibition last week, the project received great feedback, with many interested in where it could next be taken.
?? Sisters Abigail and Erica O’Brien Murray along with classmate Olivia O’Shea from @lorbalnews in Dublin, explained the science behind their #forestry project to us on the ash tree in Ireland @BTYSTE ??#BTYSTE ?? pic.twitter.com/ujzDVd5HBc— Dept of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (@agriculture_ie) January 13, 2023
The trio thanked their teacher Ms Chloe White and Dr Dheeraj Rathore at Teagasc for all their support.
Olivia, whose grandfather is a farmer in Dublin, said she is “really proud of our work because the three of us have put so much work into it”.
The 17-year-old would like to study “biology research” in future, as the ash project has really “grasped” her interest.
Erica and Abigail said the research may be able to help the hurl industry in time, which, along with the ash tree itself, is “a vital part of Ireland’s culture”.
Erica would like to study botany or zoology and Abigail has her eye on scientific maths.
On the ash research, BT Young Scientist judge Dr Richard O’Hanlon said: "Ash dieback is the most serious tree disease to arrive in Ireland in over 50 years.
"These young scientists have provided robust data to highlight potential treatments which could, in combination with other actions, protect our native ash trees."