Assessing the impact of waste metals

This project is working with the University of Exeter Aquatic Resources Centre (ARC) to assess the impact of waste metals on estuarine ecosystems in and around the Fal River, Cornwall, UK.

The upper reaches of the Fal estuary are heavily contaminated with waste metals, particularly harmful anthropogenic toxins, following a rich heritage of mining within the surrounding river catchments. As a result, local populations of the harbour ragworm (Nereis diversicolor) have adapted to survive in levels of copper and zinc that would be lethal to their conspecifics.

This research is using this striking example of tolerance to metals as a model for study, and is employing state of the art molecular biology and bioinformatics-based techniques to elucidate the cellular mechanisms underpinning this adaptation.

Using Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) technology the project has prepared a library of gene sequence information for its model species, Nereis diversicolor. Genes which defend against toxic heavy metals have been identified and the research team are in the process of understanding how these genes coordinate to protect the organism from the effects of copper.

It is widely accepted that anthropogenic contaminants released into the marine environment have a substantial detrimental impact on species health, population size and overall biodiversity, with implications for human settlements which are historically concentrated around coastal areas. It is, therefore, of paramount importance that we monitor these environments and understand the mechanisms by which species adapt and survive under these conditions if we are to forecast and manage our impact on marine and terrestrial ecosystems.

The study data will assist in understanding the fundamental basis of adaptation and tolerance to waste metals at the molecular, cellular and population level. The identification of novel metal-responsive genes will go on to provide a suite of genome level biomarkers in this organism with the potential use for biomonitoring throughout this species’ distribution range, which is extensive around the UK and Europe.