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The Environmental Research Initiative (ERI)

Humanity faces massive challenges

The 2020s must be a decade in which we all help to solve the pressing problems that threaten humankind and our environment. These include climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss, and many others. Humanity has been placing too much pressure on the natural world, with devastating consequences – not least the COVID-19 pandemic, which experts have directly linked to habitat and biodiversity loss. We must act now to address these global problems and avoid catastrophic and irreversible damage to our planet. Our actions over the next 10 years will determine the future of life on Earth.

Life science research for our planet

The Environmental Research Initiative (ERI) aims to identify the best ideas and to empower the brightest scientists, providing financial support to scientists to address global environmental problems using advanced molecular biology techniques. 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.

“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.”

Join us to make an impact for a healthier planet

Let’s make it our joint responsibility, as citizens of our planet, to mitigate the damage done to our environment and invest in finding solutions.

With your support, ERI can create new opportunities to empower brilliant young scientists to address environmental problems, using the latest developments in molecular biology.

Your donation and the investments we make today in life science research will help us secure a healthier planet for our children, grandchildren, and generations to come.

EMBL currently has 2 new exciting ERI catalyst projects that need your support.

Microbial Mats: the ocean’s natural vacuum cleaners

The ocean covers about 70% of the Earth’s surface and is home to about one million species. However, pollution is a major threat to the ocean and its diverse ecosystems. One of these natural ecosystems known as microbial mats – multi-layered communities of microorganisms in the ocean – possesses the remarkable ability to degrade pollutants such as oil, microplastics, and even some heavy metals. New spatial -omics techniques at EMBL can help us better understand how these ‘natural vacuum cleaners’ break down chemical pollutants from the oceans, making it possible to design microbial mats that target specific pollutants. This way, they could be produced and deployed at no additional cost to the environment. (Required budget: €48,000/12 months; Budget funded so far: €28,295)

Please visit the Pepperkok group page for more information.

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.

This project was launched in early 2023 through the collective donations of the global EMBL alumni community (€10,340 raised so far).

Outcomes of ERI catalyst projects funded in 2021

EMBL scientists are already engaged in a number of environmental research projects. These environmental catalyst projects were only made possible by donations from Friends of EMBL and generous private citizens. With additional financial support, EMBL can enable even more large-scale innovative research to help find solutions for our planet. This is just the beginning of what EMBL can do – there are a great number of solutions waiting to be discovered.

Fighting pesticide pollution with microbes

This project enabled studying microbes that degrade pesticides by first establishing a chemical library of 1033 agricultural pesticides – a unique research resource not previously available. EMBL scientists developed advanced analytical methods and large-scale field protocols for the development of bioindicators. This new information may lead to the use of microbes as a biological way to better remove pesticide contamination, monitor pesticide pollution, and design greener chemicals. ERI support also helped to secure further funding (the EMBL ARISE Fellowship) to continue this project through 2024. (Budget funded so far: €32,000)

Tackling nanoplastic pollution

This project uses advanced molecular biology technology at EMBL to better understand the impact of nanoplastics. Combining an X-ray technology called small angle scattering and biophysical techniques, EMBL scientists have successfully established a ‘tool set’ to take a closer look at the size and shape of nanoplastics. With this new information, we can analyze nanoplastics in ‘real life samples’ such as water from the rivers, oceans, and in physiological relevant solutions such as blood. This will help us to better understand what happens when nanoplastics enter the ocean and our bodies, and the potential threats to our marine ecosystems and to human health. (Budget funded so far: €19,000)

Find out more about Melissa’s research from antibodies to nanoplastics.

Cleaning wastewater polluted from artificial hormones

This project focused on improving the detection and identification of artificial hormones polluting wastewater through advanced computations. With EMBL’s state-of-the-art technology, EMBL scientists developed a computational pipeline – a series of data processing calculations that may help improve the detection of artificial hormones in wastewater. Next steps include testing real-world samples from a local wastewater treatment plant and more diverse compounds, e.g. steroids, which will increase the validity and performance of the computational pipeline. (Budget funded so far: €12,000)