Faculty of Biology

Water and Environmental Research

The research focus of “Water and Environment” forms part of the eponymous centre (ZWU), which also includes research groups from the Faculties of Chemistry and Engineering. The seven biologicalresearch groups of the ZWU make a significant contribution to the Master’s programmes of “Environmental Toxicology”, “Transnational Water Management” and “Biodiversity”, while, furthermore, large parts of the teaching are also covered in the Bachelor’s and Master’s courses in Biology and the Lehramt [teaching certification] in Biology. Water and environmental research is currently establishing its initial core facilities. The research focuses on the effect of multiple stressors on the structure and function of water ecosystems, the assessment of bodies of water using classical and genomic methods, ecotoxicology, and parasitology. The research groups working in this area are currently coordinating an FP7 project on the subject of multiple stressors (with 9 million euros in funding), as well as a COST action on genomic approaches in water assessment. Researchers at the ZWU are also involved in the German Research Foundation’s priority programme 1704.

The Geology research group (led by Prof. Ulrich Schreiber) was where the first phase of the “Underground pump storage plant in the Ruhr valley” project was completed in cooperation with Prof. André Niemann (Institute for Hydraulic Engineering). The findings established from this project, which cover geological questions concerning the tectonics and lithology of cavernous areas and storage zones, were used to form the basis of a conceptual study. This study focused on the disposal of highly radioactive waste, which provides retrievable storage in granitic rock below horizontal salt layers. The conditions at the Thuringian Basin are ideal in this regard. The study was submitted to the Commission on the Storage of High-Level Radioactive Waste and is referenced in the commission’s final report. In collaboration with the Faculty of Chemistry (Christian Mayer (Physical Chemistry) and Oliver Schmitz (Applied Analytical Chemistry)), the project “Origin of Life in Hydrothermal Fracture Zones of the Continental Crust” yielded new insights into the formation of vesicles and a chemical evolution of peptides under supercritical conditions. In addition, records of a complex organic chemistry have been found in hydrothermal quartz rubble in Western Australia, dating back over three billion years.

Prof. Hardy Pfanz and his research group deal with ecophysiological and ecotoxicological studies on the effects of extreme, volcanogenic CO2 exhalations (mofettes). Bioindicators for geogenic CO2 gas have been found alongside mofettophilic, mofettophobic and indeterminate mofette species, as well as gas-indicating nematodes (threadworms) and collembols (springtails). The physiological characterisation of a mofette fungus provided insights into the pH-stat systems of fungal cells. A natural CO2-gas lake made it possible to analyse, quantify and verify the greenhouse effect in situ. Using seismically or volcanically-influenced soil, chemical and physical soil parameters were quantified and their behaviour characterised with regard to geogenic acidification. Studies on the absorption of fine dust by living and dead plant-based surfaces showed that, despite having a similar dust-binding capacity, the in-situ effect is lower due to the smaller total bark area compared to the total leafy area per tree. The quantification/modelling of the photosynthetic carbon gain by stem photosynthesis in woody plants shows that the capacity of the bark photosynthesis is of the same order of magnitude as the rates of leaf photosynthesis.

The work of the Department of Aquatic Ecology (Prof. Daniel Hering, Prof. Bernd Sures) focuses on the topics of water assessment, water renaturation, parasitology and ecotoxicology. In addition, third-party projects have been successfully acquired in all fields of research. The department coordinates several large-scale projects, as well as being involved in a number of other major research projects. Since 2014, the department has been coordinating the EU-funded MARS research project (www.mars-project.eu) with 24 partners. The MARS project makes use of open-air experiments, modelling, and pan-European data analyses to investigate the effect of multiple stressors on aquatic ecosystems. More specifically, it involved developing empirical models of the effect of stress combinations on living communities and ecosystem functions. A further focus of the department looks at predicting the resettlement potential of renaturated water bodies, as well as creating online software to assess the water. The MERCUR collaborative project “The Importance of Parasites in the Resettlement of Formerly Degraded River Ecosystems by Indigenous and Invasive Flea Crustaceans: the Emscher Example”, which was carried out jointly with Ruhr University Bochum, served as the preparatory work for a joint application to the DFG. The Department of Aquatic Ecology is also a key player in the PhD programme Future Water –“Future Water – Global Water Research in the Ruhr Metropolitan Area”, funded by the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Led by Prof. Florian Leese, the focus of the Aquatic Ecosystem research group is on analysing the influence of environmental stressors on aquatic invertebrates. To this end, the group uses and develops state-of-the-art genetic methods to characterise molecular stress responses, changes in the genetic diversity of species, and patterns of positive selection in populations through environmental changes. A further key area is the development of DNA-based methods of molecular environmental diagnostics, particularly biomonitoring. Our pioneering studies have allowed us to demonstrate that the composition and modification of living communities in rivers, lakes and seas can already be determined in a comprehensive and standardised manner using DNA metabarcoding technology. This opens up completely new approaches to the way we manage natural resources, although further improvements are still required. To this end, an EU-COST action involving 31 partner countries to date and chaired by Prof. Florian Leese (www.DNAqua.net) secured funding in 2016. Similarly, a sub-project of the large BMBF-funded joint project GBOL-2 (coordinated by the Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig in Bonn, www.bolgermany.de) also received funding. This sub-project allowed the technologies that had been developed to be tested in practice with concrete applications (in cooperation with the Emschergenossenschaft/Lippeverband association).

The Biodiversity research group (led by Prof. Jens Boenigk) investigates the correlations and interactions between biodiversity and ecosystem functions, including within the framework of the MERCUR collaborative project entitled “Significance of Flood Risk”, conducted in cooperation with Ruhr University Bochum, and the DFG Priority Programme DynaTrait. It also investigates the distribution of species and populations at regional and global levels, which involves analysing the patterns of biodiversity distribution and the factors contributing to community differentiation. The development of bioinformatic and statistical evaluation tools in collaboration with the Department of Bioinformatics has been able to significantly increase the robustness of molecular diversity analyses. Both the organisational form and functional differentiation of the organisms systematically influence their propagation patterns. The comparative analysis of individual key organisms is thus a further core area of research. Key organisms from aquatic and terrestrial habitats alike are isolated and morphologically, genetically and ecophysiologically characterised in the laboratory. On a molecular level, analysing functional differentiation encompasses aspects of genomevolution and the regulation of gene expression, while, on an ecological and ecophysiological level, it addresses the adaptation and acclimatisation to various environmental factors and stressors.

For the General Zoology research group (led by Prof. Hynek Burda), the focus was very much on the study of magnetoreception, neuroethology and neuroendocrinology (paying particular attention to thyroid hormones, melatonin and stress hormones) in vertebrates. It also looked at behavioural ecology, bioacoustics, physiology, sensory and reproductive biology, and the biology of ageing in the Fukomys, a subterraneous African rodent belonging to the mole rat family. Further research projects funded by third parties include “Circadian Rhythms of Subterranean Mammals – the Earth’s Magnetic Field as a Potential Timer] (VW Foundation), “Biology of Ageing in the Fukomys” (DFG), “Fault Regulations of the Thyroxine Thyroid Hormone as a Cause of Colour Perception Disorders and Age-dependent Macular Degeneration] (PRO RETINA Foundation), “Neurobiology of the Magnetoception in the Fukomys” (Mercator Research Center Ruhr), and “Use of Biologgers in the Study of Magnetic Alignment in Mammals” (German Society for Mammalian Biology –DGS). Last but not least, the department’s research activities also incorporate small-mammal fauna and urban ecology.

The research activities of the newly-established research group on River and Meadow Ecology (led by Prof. Peter Haase) focus on three main areas. The research into ecological long-term monitoring at the Rhine-Main Observatory is integrated into various EU projects within the context of the European network LTER-Europe (http://www.lter-europe.net/lter-europe/projects/eLTER; www.silvagabreta.eu) and as a European contribution to GEO BON (http://www.eubon.eu/). A second focus has involved various studies and projects on the renaturation of watercourses and their impact on biodiversity and human beings, which has given rise to several highly cited articles as part of a national project. Furthermore, key multiple-stressor studies have been published that reveal the impacts of land use, climate change, pollution and hydromorphology on living communities in watercourses.