Magdalena Grifoll «Biological decontamination treatments are more effective, cheaper, and more sustainable»

Dr. Magdalena Grifoll, from the Faculty of Biology of the University of Barcelona, studies the biotechnological potential of environmental microbial communities for the decontamination of areas affected by mixtures of hydrocarbons and their derivatives.

What is your research group working on?

The Biodegradation and Bioremediation group of the University of Barcelona studies microbial metabolic networks involved in the biological degradation of organic contaminants (mainly polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, PAHs, and their O and N derivatives) in the environment. Our ultimate goal is to understand and optimize biodegradation processes in order to apply them to the decontamination of contaminated water and soil.

In terms of basic research, we study how these compounds are degraded, which bacteria populations attack them and how they interact with each other, and the response of the environment after a spill and during the recovery period, among others. With regard to applied research, we work with companies to develop and assess methods for the decontamination of soil, water and waste, conducting R&D work in the laboratory. In this latter case, companies bring us contaminated soil or groundwater and we determine whether or not it can be treated using biological methods. We analyse the soil and determine the type and concentration of the contaminant, quantify the degrading microbial populations and their activity, and perform different tests to determine the best conditions and adjustments to enhance the biodegradation of the contaminant. If the soil has a poor contaminant-degrading microbiota, we can also develop specialised microbial consortiums to use as inocula.

Where do most of contaminants come from?

We study pollutants of petrogenic or pyrolytic origin, that is, those resulting from the transformation and industrial use of oil and coal. We analyse soil and groundwater that may be affected by a spill, how to treat the waste from petrochemical industries, as well as industrial sites for the production, storage or transformation of fuels. This type of activity, involving the production, use and transport of these products, can always lead to accidental spills in the environment, and we aim to promote the biological elimination of these products.

What is the difference between chemical and biological decontamination?

Biological decontamination is much more sustainable. From an ecological point of view, it is the only treatment that restores soil functionality. Soils are home to a great diversity of living beings and their function as major carbon traps, fresh water reservoirs, and food producers is largely linked to the microbiota. Physical-chemical treatments are generally very aggressive and, besides eliminating contaminants, they destroy the microbiota and the structure of the soil, so they do not restore soil functionality; at least not in the short term. Another advantage of biological decontamination is that it is cheaper than chemical treatments. In addition, it does not introduce toxins, which are pollutants in themselves.

However, biological decontamination has one drawback, namely uncertainty. With a chemical treatment it is easier to measure the amount of product to be applied and to determine the number of days that the product will take to eliminate the contaminant. In contrast, a biological treatment always depends very much on the type of soil, the type of contaminant, and the types of bacteria present. This uncertainty means that tests must first be carried out in the laboratory to find out whether the treatment will work in the field or not, and this is something that companies see as an inconvenience. However, this is changing. The EU is promoting green technologies and a circular economy, increasingly pushing for biological treatments, which are potentially more effective, cheaper, and also more sustainable.

What is your view on the relationship between institutions or companies and the university?

I think it has evolved. Companies now see us as both a research centre and a potential laboratory at their service. I think that this is very positive because providing a service allows us to maintain a series of facilities and staff that might be more difficult to afford were we to only conduct basic research. Companies see that we know how to do research and that we also know how to solve real problems. Also, the environmental consultancies we work with are doing very well, because this collaboration allows them to have an R&D laboratory without having to maintain it permanently. I think that this connection has to be promoted and that it will become even more important in the future.

However, one of the problems in this country is that we are not very transparent about pollution. The United States, for example, has reached the point where it is beneficial for a company to conduct research to solve possible pollution problems. Here, nobody publicly assumes that there are contaminated sites or that industrial activity involves possible risks that we must be prepared to mitigate.

How important is knowledge transfer?

I believe that knowledge transfer is one of the functions of the university. Research must be able to solve the problems of industrial society, and, moreover, transfer is a source of income for the sustainability of research groups. It also allows me to have contact with the professional world and to be able to pass on my experience to my students. Not all students will carry out basic research; they must also be trained to undertake different professional careers. In my case, knowledge transfer allows me to train students in these two ways.


More about Magda Grifoll

The best advancement in history
A key breakthrough was the discovery of the structure of the DNA molecule and the genetic code. More recently, CRISPR technology has been a revolution.

A future advancement that scares you
Genetic editing may allow us to cure or prevent diseases, but what scares me the most is the fact that it can also be used in a trivial way, for example to improve people’s appearance.

A scientific reference
My most important reference was the director of my first postdoctoral fellowship in the United States, Peter Chapman.

The FBG is…
… a research support office that allows us to contact companies and facilitates the establishment of the proper channels to work with them. It helps us to make ourselves known, and that’s also why I think it’s very necessary.

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