An ERC Grant to predict the toxicity of nanomaterials in the ecosystem
Environmental researcher Martina Vijver is over the moon with her ERC Consolidator Grant. This prestigious grant is recognition, she says, of the study of the behaviour and possible toxicity of new nanomaterials in ecosystems.
New nanomaterials are frequently used to improve products: to make them more scratch resistant or lighter, faster or stronger, for instance. They are generally more effective than other materials. But are they safe? This is the question that Martina Vijver, Professor of Ecotoxology at the Institute of Environmental Sciences in Leiden, will try to answer.
Impact on entire ecosystem
Vijver explains the research that her brand-new ERC Consolidator Grant will fund: ‘At present new materials are often screened in short-term, acute tests on standard types of small organism and cell system. But we know that acute toxicity in nanomaterials is very rare; it is in the longer term that effects can be expected. What is more, it is really important to look at the impact on entire ecosystems. Which interactions are disrupted?’
A nanometre is a million times smaller than a millimetre. Almost all chemical substances can now be produced on the nanoscale. This means they all have a chemical mechanism, and the particles exhibit specific behaviour, known as colloidal behaviour. The nanomaterials form a suspension in water. To describe an exposure dose, you not only have to look at the mass (concentration) but also have to include the characteristics of the nanoparticles, such as size or charge, and their quantity.
Nanomaterials are often very reactive because of their large surface area/volume ratio: small cells have a greater surface area in proportion to large cells. This makes it easy for them to exchange sufficient substances with their surroundings to stay alive. They also have strong adhesive properties and can bind together. They can also bind to soil, plants, algae, bacteria and small creatures. This means they can move differently through the food webs in the ecosystem than dissolved chemical substances.
Vijver: ‘As nanoparticles are different and work differently, the risk estimates for adverse effects need to be investigated using fully revised fundamental principles. It is important to study both the positive and undesirable effects of nanomaterials.’ Nanotechnology is still a young discipline, so it is possible to make risk estimates before there are enormous emissions. This is unique and differs from the plastic and chemical pollution whose effects only became apparent years later. Thanks to the 2m euros that Vijver has received she will be able to devote five years to nanomaterials research. ‘This research grant is fantastic!’
In the lab Vijver will look at how nanomaterials behave, and will describe the speed at which they degrade and dissolve, and how particles bind together. She will also describe the adsorption versus the absorption of nanomaterials by individual species of water organism.
… and field work
In the Living Lab – the ditches that CML was able to dig with the aid of crowdfunding – Vijver will study the whole ecosystem. This relates to the ecology, the interaction between the organisms. Vijver: ‘So I’m not just going to look at how the nanomaterials affect individual organisms but also at how that has a direct effect on the food chain and whether, for example, there is an indirect effect in which the adsorption of nanomaterials disrupts ecological relationships.’ She will link ecological models to dispersion and effect models, which will then make predictions possible.
Vivjer makes the following appeal: ‘If you are a researcher and are developing new materials – from synthetic substances to materials and proteins – please don’t forget to test for unwanted effects too.’ Other researchers can always contact her.
‘Ecosystems have an intrinsic value that we must protect,’ says Vijver. The name of the project, ECOWIZARD, is inspired by the application of ecology to the discipline of ecotoxicology. It’s also a nod to the book by journalist Charles Mann, The Wizard and the Profit. Vijver: ‘He describes two paths to a livable future for our planet: on the one hand the technocratic path and on the other the ecological one. It’s really inspiring. I myself think that sustainable, ecological solutions can go hand in hand with ecotechnology. But you do have to take the step of more extensive testing of new materials, so also in environments that they are not initially intended for and in concentrations that can occur outside the application.’
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Text: Corine Hendriks/Martina Vijver