The genetic science that is making advances in future medicine is starting to unravel some of the deepest secrets of Irish people’s past.

The research by scientists at Trinity College Dublin and archaeologists at Queen’s University Belfast reveals much about early Irish farming and its origins.

The presence of genetic traits indicating high lactose tolerance in three Bronze Age men buried on Rathlin Island around 4,000 years ago, for example, can tell a lot. This is a trait far more common in Ireland than elsewhere in the modern world.

“Lactose tolerance suggests that we have a long history of strongly relying on milk as a major food source, rather than simply meat from livestock,” said Dan Bradley, professor of population genetics at Trinity College Dublin.

While it is established that farming began in Ireland around 5,800 years ago, the traits of a woman and her genetic code, or genome, offer new clues to its origins. From the archaeology around her burial south of Belfast, where she was first excavated in 1855, it was already established that she was a farmer.

But the analysis of her DNA produced a genome — a code made up of 3bn parts that makes every human unique — which tells us a lot more about her.

“The genome sequencing process has been mainly for medical purposes, but we have piggy-backed the technology [which] medical people have developed,” said Prof Bradley.

The Belfast farmer woman lived 5,200 years ago — hundreds of years after farming began in Ireland — and her genome shows she had dark hair and brown eyes. This allowed the creation of a model of what she looked like. The genome revealed other genetic traits that show her ancestry was from the Middle East, where agriculture was invented.

The genomes of three Bronze Age men excavated more recently on Rathlin Island — but still more than 4,000 years old — show that one third of their ancestry was from ancient sources in the Pontic Steppe, a region near the Black Sea and modern Ukraine and Russia.

“There was a great wave of genome change that swept into Europe from above the Black Sea into Bronze Age Europe and we now know it washed all the way to the shores of its most westerly island,” said Prof Bradley.

“This degree of genetic change invites the possibility of other associated changes, perhaps even the introduction of language ancestral to western Celtic tongues,” he said.

While migration and its influence on Irish civilisation and culture have been controversial subjects in archaeology, the findings published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, show unequivocal evidence for massive migration.

They also support the argument that agriculture and farming were brought here by migrants, rather than being adopted by local people independently of any influxes of new people.

The discovery of genetic traits in the genomes of the Bronze Age men for haemochromatosis, a disease involving high retention of iron in the blood, is also significant — and not just as the first identification of an important disease in variant pre-history. Irish people have the world’s highest levels of this genetic variant and, combined with other traits still found in modern Irish genetics, this adds significant knowledge on the origins of today’s Irish gene-pool.

“Genetic affinity is strong-est between the Bronze Age genomes and modern Irish, Scottish, and Welsh, suggesting establishment of central attributes of the insular Celtic genome some 4,000 years ago,” said Lara Cassidy, a PhD genetics researcher at Trinity College Dublin.

Robots, solar system, and space station feature at exhibition

Genetics and modern technology form just a part of the fare at the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition in Dublin next week. From students on both sides of the border, 550 projects will demonstrate their research from the past few months and longer.

The RDS is once again hosting the exhibition, from Thursday to Saturday, January 7 to 9.

As well as the chance to see some of the likely future names of science and innovation in Ireland, visitors will also be able to enjoy a range of entertainment.

The audiences for Celestial Voyage 3D, just one show on offer on the sidelines of the exhibition, will be transported back in time to see the beginning of the solar system when the sun burst into life. They will also get a virtual visit on board the international space station and see how astronauts live and work on it.

Robotics enthusiasts can enjoy the World of Robots and Titan the Robot at the 2016 event, where entrants will be competing for prizes in a range of categories.

Mentalist, David Meade, will do three daily showsthroughout the exhibition, testing the audience’s minds as they try to figure out the secret behind his tricks. He shot to fame five years ago after a hit series on BBC television.

Visitors can plan their trip to the RDS with the free BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition app, which offers an exhibition map, schedule of events, search facilities for student projects, a social network, and lots of event info.

Tickets, available at the door, cost €6 for students, €12 for adults and €25 for a family pass which includes two adults and two children.

For information, log onto , look for BTYSTE on Facebook, or follow @BTYSTE on Twitter.


Five celebrities open up about male anxiety

Out of Africa and into Cork's Live at the Marquee

Sex advice with Suzi Godson: We’re getting divorced — but we’re still having sex

Open your mind to making an entrance

More From The Irish Examiner