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by Sofia Villegas
09 February 2024
Scottish universities join pioneer project to tackle pollution

Rubbish on the shore of Lock Long in Arrochar | Alamy

Scottish universities join pioneer project to tackle pollution

Three Scottish universities have joined forces in a £13m project aimed at tackling pollution.

The money will fund an innovation centre where researchers will develop microorganisms to mitigate any negative impacts from substances like plastic waste.

Scientists from Heriot-Watt University, the University of Glasgow and the University of Edinburgh will join the research group, the first of its kind in the UK.

Tony Gutierrez, associate professor at Heriot-Watt University, said: “Industry makes thousands of new chemicals every year, some of which get into the environment and cause serious environmental damage.

“In 2021 alone, the UK produced over 2.5 million tonnes of plastic waste, according to statistics revealed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

“We rely on microbes to break down these compounds and reduce their toxicity and overall environmental impact.

“Whilst they can only be seen through a microscope, they can be used, for example, to clean up almost any pollutant from the environment.”

Funded by the Technology Missions Fund, part of UKRI, the new Environmental Biotechnology Innovation Centre will be led by Cranfield University.

The five-year project will use state-of-the-art techniques including synthetic biology and environmental engineering to develop applications in the lab that can then be applied in the field.

Microbes can evolve to tackle new chemical pollutants they may not have encountered before, Gutierrez explained, meaning the research could be a significant boost to the fight against contamination, improving quality of life across the world.

It is expected that outdoor air pollution and ground-level ozone will become the top causes of environmentally related deaths worldwide by 2050.

According to the UK Government, air pollution is already the biggest environmental risk to British public health, with the mortality rate of human-made air pollution roughly equivalent to at least 28,000 annual deaths.

The cohort will focus on three areas: next-generation biosensing, bioremediation and enhanced waste management.

Another focal point for Heriot-Watt researchers will be biosurfactants as these are natural detergent-like compounds “used in the manufacture of virtually any product you can think of”, added Gutierrez.

The team will be developing “new microbial processes for producing powerful biosurfactants to clean up environmental sites contaminated with toxic chemical pollutants”.

It is hoped that, if successful, the research will enhance environmental monitoring, promote healthier ecosystems, and optimise the waste-treatment process.

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