Biotechnology project to reduce mercury pollution in marine sediments

The UAB participates in the MER-CLUB initiative to develop a technology based on the use of marine bacteria capable of degrading a toxic mercury compound that bio-accumulates in the trophic network. The project is made up of a consortium of seven international partners and has a budget of one million euros.

Sediments play a key role in marine ecosystems, as they provide nutrients that are part of the diet of aquatic species, and mineral resources that guarantee biological wealth and diversity. Unfortunately, the pollution resulting from industrial effluents and wastewater accumulates in these sediments, converting them into a pollutant reservoir. Until the onset of the application of the Dumping Law (in the 1990s), the sediments had accumulated large quantities of metals, including mercury.

The project focuses on developing a biotechnological solution that will use detoxifying bacteria to reduce the presence of mercury in marine sediments, and thus improve the quality of marine environments.

An international consortium is developing the MER-CLUB research project. Led by Dr Laura Alonso-Sáez from AZTI, a technology centre specialised in the marine and food chain value, andit also includes the involvement of the UAB through Olga Sànchez, lecturer at the Department of Genetics and Microbiology, as head researcher. Other institutions involved are the Institute of Marine Sciences (ICM-CSIC), the Swedish University of Agriculture Science (SLU), the University of Pau and Pays de l’Adour (UPPA), the Association for innovative Medical-, Bio-, and Environmental Technologies (GMBU) and an SME, AFESA Medio Ambiente S.A. (AFESA).

A proof-of-concept of the new bio-remediation system will be carried out at a pilot plant by AFESA, within the framework of the initiative. Before arriving at this test, several fundamental research lines will be developed, using innovative methods such as advanced microorganism culture techniques on marine sediments by AZTI, single-cell isolation of mercury detoxifying consortia by SLU, Omics techniques to learn about the diversity of mercury detoxifiers by ICM-CSIC, physiological characterization of mercury-degrading microorganisms by UAB, immobilization of mercury-detoxifying cells by GMBU and isotopic analyses of mercury by UPPA, among others.

A Global Response

Mercury pollution is a critical global problem and has a great socioeconomic and environmental impact. From the start of the industrial era, mercury levels in the environment have increased considerably, until they have reached concentrations that affect organisms in ecosystems.

Industrial pollution, harmful for the marine environment at a local, regional and global level, generates serious consequences for the natural environment, and above all, for human health. At a local level, some industries that have used mercury in their technological processes, have generated high pollution levels in their vicinity. But, in addition to this local pollution, there are forms of volatile mercury which, once they reach the atmosphere, can travel large distances and settle a long way from their origins.

By designing new technologies to reduce pollution caused by this metal, the MER-CLUB project is fully in line with the goals of the Minamata Convention, an international treaty designed to reduce mercury in the environment, forcing the countries involved to reduce mercury emissions, monitoring pollution and the treatment of the affected places.

The project is financed through the European Commission’s EASME programme, the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF).

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