Alumni Relations

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Environmental Research Initiative

The Environmental Research Initiative (ERI), launched at EMBL in 2020, is addressing some of the pressing environmental challenges facing us today through what EMBL does best: molecular life science research.  While lifestyle changes are important, we believe that research is urgently needed to deliver the scale and speed necessary for world-changing solutions.

  • Amount raised: €160,340
  • Original goal for funding one ERI project: €18,500


The Environmental Research Initiative (ERI) provides financial support to EMBL scientists seeking to better understand and tackle environmental challenges. This is done at the moment by funding catalyst projects. In the future, we aspire towards the support of new groups, each focusing on a specific area of research linked to tackling pressing environmental challenges.

The first catalyst project we chose to fund on behalf of alumni was the EMBL Zimmermann group’s exploration of plankton as a tool to combat marine pollution. Our goal was to raise €18,500 in support of this project. We raised €160,000 through donations from 50 alumni. Thank you!

In April 2022, the alumni community raised €7,355 towards funding this project. The second phase of the campaign began in October 2022, bringing in a total of €10.340 for the year. This meant that the project could begin.

In early 2023, the project became a collaboration between the Zimmermann and Vincent labs, with postdoctoral fellow Richard Jacoby and predoctoral fellow Soraya Zwahlen recruiting and supervising a masters student, Sandra Kindler, to pilot-test innovative methods and protocols to measure how plankton respond to pollutants. Sandra helped assemble a comprehensive library of approximately 250 chemicals representing priority marine pollutants.

A further success story from this campaign was the engagement of EMBL alumni Roel and Marijke Wijnaendts, who contributed to the campaign and visited EMBL to learn how they could do more. “Plankton is the start of life, and it could also save life,” Roel pointed out during their second visit on 20th June. A week later, Roel and Marijke donated €150,000 towards ERI. This substantial donation started a chain reaction that led to the order of a plankton scanner for EMBL.

The ERI Plankton catalyst project is still in its early stages. The plankton scanner, however, will open a whole new world of possibilities for seeing plankton, and dramatically advancing research in this area. This outcome highlights the impact of many smaller donations, without which this larger gift would not have happened.

We would once again like to express our heartfelt gratitude to the EMBL community, sharing with you the thank you message from Flora Vincent and her predoctoral fellow, Thomas Beavis, sent to Roel and Marijke while they were on their fieldwork in Tallinn, Estonia.

Exploring plankton as a tool to combat marine pollution

An accumulation of pollutants in organisms caused by agriculture, industry, and pharmaceuticals is harming marine biodiversity, ecosystems and seafood.

Plankton, tiny organisms carried by tides and currents, are gatekeepers of bioaccumulation, but there is currently a knowledge gap in this area.

This project will research plankton as bioindicators rather than fish or molluscs which are typically used as marine bioindicators. Plankton have advantages compared to bigger species, because they control the first step of bioaccumulation, and because they initiate cascades that have knock-on effects on the rest of the ecosystem.

Another key point of difference in this project, compared to other environmental monitoring work, is the use of advanced technologies like sequencing and mass spectrometry. Cutting-edge analytical methods will be deployed to define specific plankton species, the toxic pollutants they absorb and the mechanisms of bioaccumulation.

This pilot will allow us to explore the potential and feasibility of using plankton to study pollutants and their fate in the environment.

This 1-year project costs €18,500 for a designated masters project plus the consumable costs used in mass spectrometry and sequencing.


Three catalyst projects that address pollution from pesticides, nanoplastics and artificial hormones were funded in 2021 from donations amounting to just over €60,000, thanks to the Friends of EMBL programme and generous individuals. Find out more about the outcomes of the three projects below:

  1. Fighting pesticides with microbes
  2. Cleaning wastewater from artificial hormones
  3. Tackling plastic pollution in the oceans

1. Fighting pesticides with microbes

Pesticides used in agriculture are a major threat for soil and water ecosystems. Although it is known that microbes can break down pesticides, it is still not well understood which microbes do this and how they do it.

In the past year, this project has established a chemical library of 1033 agricultural pesticides, which is a unique resource because no pesticide library was previously commercially available.

EMBL developed analytical methods to systematically map which microbes degrade which pesticides and established protocols to monitor pesticide pollution in the field on a large-scale level.

Furthermore, this project made it possible to recruit a dedicated scientist, whose success secured an ARISE fellowship to continue working on this project until 2024.

In the future, this research will help identify ways to better remove pesticides from the environment and to design greener chemicals.

2. Cleaning wastewater from artificial hormones

The daily use of pharmaceuticals introduces a high load of artificial hormones into the wastewater and the environment, which is harmful to fish and local ecosystems. However, it is currently a major hurdle to be able to detect and identify these hormones.

In 2021, EMBL developed a preliminary computational pipeline, a series of data processing calculations that may help improve the detection of artificial hormones in wastewater. In the near future, real-world samples will be sampled from a local wastewater treatment plant and the computational pipeline will be expanded for more diverse compounds such as steroids.

This will improve the validity and performance of the computational pipeline, which is necessary to improve the detection and identification of artificial hormones.

3. Tackling plastic pollution in the oceans

Eight million tonnes of plastic waste end up in the oceans each year. This plastic waste eventually breaks down into tiny particles called microplastics and nanoplastics, which can cause serious problems for animals, humans, and ecosystems. However, the precise impacts of nanoplastics remain largely unexplored.

Combining advanced X-ray technology and biophysical techniques, EMBL scientists have successfully established a ‘tool set’, allowing them to take a closer look at the size and shape of nanoplastics. With this new information, they will be able to start analysing the behavior of nanoplastics in ‘real life samples’ such as water from the rivers, oceans and in physiological relevant solutions such as blood.

This will help them better understand what happens to nanoplastics when they enter the ocean and our bodies and the potential threats to our marine ecosystems and to human health. Key experiments are ongoing. Watch this space for outcomes.


How does ERI fit with the EMBL Programme?

ERI complements the EMBL Programme by addressing an area of need which is not covered by the EMBL Budget.

What is the long-term vision

In the future, we aspire towards supporting new groups at EMBL which will focus on a specific area of research linked to tackling pressing environmental challenges.

How will the money be spent?

Donations will be used to fund and kickstart catalyst projects which will build on those already set up. Ultimately, we hope that this grassroots alumni campaign will encourage philanthropists and charitable trusts to help fund ERI on an even larger scale.

How do I propose a catalyst project?

Applications, which are only open to EMBL scientists, are now closed for 2022. To find out more, click here (internal access only)

Can I get involved in other ways?

Your support as an ambassador for ERI is invaluable. You can help by spreading the word within your networks and raising awareness of ERI amongst potential donors and anyone with interest or expertise in tackling global environmental challenges.


A huge thanks to all the donors supporting the ERI Alumni fundraising campaign, who are listed below.

  • Andres Gaytan de Ayala Alonso
  • Maria Teresa Alonso
  • Bernhard Dobberstein
  • Alexander Bezler
  • Christine Blaumueller
  • Otto Bräunling
  • Maïwen Caudron-Herger
  • Andrea Cerase
  • Christian Desaintes
  • Foteini Fotiadou
  • Björn Fritz
  • Tom Furnival-Adams
  • Fátima Gebauer
  • Gregor Gilfillan
  • Mark Green
  • Gareth Griffiths
  • Matthias Hentze
  • Stephanie Jones
  • Norbert Kraut
  • Armin Lahm
  • Gàbor Lamm
  • Tomi Määttä
  • Mark Marsh
  • Aurora Martinez
  • Anne-Marie Michon
  • Tamás Orbán
  • Peter Papagiannis
  • Lidia Pérez
  • Stephanie Peter
  • Savvas Petridis
  • Jean Pieters
  • Ramesh Pillai
  • Laure Plantard
  • Vasileios Rantos
  • Mehrnoosh Rayner
  • Brendan Rouse
  • Chris Sander
  • Julia and Daniel Schaft
  • Thomas Schell
  • Wibke Schwarzer
  • Gemma Texido
  • David Tollervey
  • Peitz Ulrich
  • Gerrit van Meer
  • David Venzke
  • Sonja Welsch
  • Ambra Villani and Kamil Wolanin
  • Matthias Wilm
  • Roelof Wijnaendts-van-Resandt
  • Joana Witkowski
  • Janos (Hans) Wittmann
  • Other anonymous donors

Funds raised in April were supplemented by a €1,000 personal donation from Matthias Hentze, as promised during the campaign.

To view all donors supporting ERI outside this campaign please visit the ERI Donors page.


Please get in touch if you would like to find out more:
Mehrnoosh Rayner
EMBL Head of Alumni Relations
E-mail: rayner[at]embl.de
Tel: +49-6221-3878102

Alumni support

Through the collective impact of the global EMBL alumni community of more than 5,000 members, we hope to raise sufficient funds on EMBL’s 50th anniversary in 2024 to contribute to an ERI-funded fellowship.

  • Mark EMBL’s 50th anniversary or the special occasion of a friend, colleague or loved one by creating a Gift Certificate in their name through the online donation form  – we will send this to you via e-mail.
  • Ask us about tax efficient giving if your donation is over €300, and you live in Germany or the USA.

Donate now and help us support research that addresses urgent global challenges.

Matthias Hentze

Director, Co-Director of MMPU


“I started the Environmental Research Initiative (ERI) because I see a tremendous chance in bringing EMBL’s world-leading know-how in the life sciences to the pressing problems of our times. Join me to help find new and creative solutions through research as the most effective way to preserve our environment.”

Mark Green

EMBL Alumni Association Board member, Former EMBL-EBI Head of Administration

“EMBL is well-placed, within its existing networks, to deepen and deploy the understanding of molecular biology to help combat climate change as it affects the environment, the biodiversity of life, food chains, human disease and wellbeing.  Supporting EMBL is one way of supporting these endeavours.”