Bioremediation: nature’s helping hand against metal pollution

Each year some of our students undertake summer projects and this year was no different. Here’s an account of Msci Plant Science student Helen Feord working as part of Dr Jon Pittman’s lab to research more into metal pollution. This project was supported by a Faculty of Life Sciences Sustainability studentship.

Metal pollution creates hostile environments, but many different organisms persevere and survive in these extreme conditions. Our understanding of such polluted ecosystem comes from characterising their biodiversity and the presence of extremophile (living in extreme environment) organisms. As part of a summer project, funded by the sustainability studentship, plant science student Helen Feord investigated biodiversity from the abandoned copper mine, Parys Mountain, in north Wales. Working in Jon Pittman’s lab, Helen identified organisms from ponds from the abandoned mine by using ribosomal marker sequence identification and then comparing the unknown DNA sequence with known database sequences. Amoebas, fungi, an acidophilic bryophyte and golden alga were some of the organisms found.

To examine these organisms further, Helen focused in particular on the Chlamydomonas acidophila alga. This alga lives in incredibly acidic conditions (in a pH as low as 2) and has a high tolerance to metals such as zinc.  There was an interest in knowing if the amount of zinc present in the water that they lived in had an influence on their tolerance for the metal. Indeed Helen looked at zinc tolerance by comparing the growth of C. acidophila isolated from different ponds and found a difference in zinc tolerance between C. acidophila from the various ponds. However there was no apparent link between the zinc tolerance of C. acidophila and the zinc concentration in the pond they came from, meaning that, in this context, high zinc concentrations did not induce high zinc tolerance.

Furthermore by testing C. acidophila survival and growth at different zinc concentrations, Helen found tolerance surpassing 50 mM zinc. Helen also compared the metal tolerance of genetically modified Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, a model species suitable for genetic analysis. Transgenic strains had they had been genetically modified to express plant proteins that bind metals, and thus have the potential to tolerate metal better. Interestingly, compared to these genetically modified algae, C. acidophila zinc tolerance was much higher.  However for Cadmium, both species had a similar tolerance.

This emphasised the high metal tolerance of C. acidophila and this knowledge is particularly useful as this organism has the potential to be a solution for metal pollution, a concept called bioremediation, the use of living organisms to solve environmental issues like this one. Indeed C. acidophila appears be so metal tolerant because of its ability to uptake the metal. But this still needs to be investigated further so that we can continue to look for ways to use this organism in bioremediation.

A Summer of Science – a Celebration of Environmental Research

In celebration of the Natural Environment Research Council’s (NERC) 50th anniversary, a series of special science outreach events have taken place as part of the “summer of science”. As part of this, four teams of scientists from the FLS were given funding to host the “FLS environmental roadshows”.

The roadshow took place in 3 events – the FLS Community Open Day, a special adult-only event at the Manchester Museum and a one day exhibition at the Jodrell Bank Observatory is Cheshire. The open day saw over 850 people come to the University where they got to learn about the exciting life of plants.

For the one day exhibition the team were based at the Jodrell Discover Centre. The family friendly event saw cockroaches running up children’s arms, earthworms moving through soil and hands on experiences with carnivorous plants. The adults at the centre were taught about food security, radioactive contamination and soil ecology.

Dr Giles Johnson, Deputy Associate Dean for Social Responsibility and Faculty Lead for Environmental Sustainability said:

For us, the event was a huge success.  We were able to explain our science to a wide range of the public and we were also challenged to think about our science in new ways, by the questions we were asked.  It was a great day out.

Becky Burns, the Head of Gardens and Interpretation at Jodrell Bank thanks the team:

Thanks to the FLS team for coming out to Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre with their Summer of Science Roadshow! Visitors of all ages enjoyed interacting with enthusiastic staff and students, exploring the world of plants and living creatures and learning about their ongoing research.

Jodrell Bank, famous for its radio telescopes, has a long lasting association with Life Sciences in Manchester. Even before the telescopes moved in, the Bank housed the Victoria University Botany department. The botany tradition has continued through to today with an extensive arboretum, which is where the national collection of apples trees bloom. It makes for a great visit – so why not treat yourself this weekend.

Tuesday Feature episode 9: David Grantham

It’s starting to feel a lot like spring here in Manchester and episode 9 of the Tuesday Feature was the perfect excuse to go enjoy the sun! In this week’s episode we interview David Grantham who is the overseer of the Firs Experimental Garden in Fallowfield. The interview, which was shot in the beautiful gardens, will show you why the Firs Experimental Garden really is Manchester’s “hidden gem”.

In ten sentences or less, what is your role in the Faculty?

My role here in the faculty is to oversee the research, teaching and outreach that is undertaken at the botanical grounds. A lot of scientific papers come from plant experiments that are planted here. The grounds have been here a long time in the faculty but there a bit of a hidden gem because not everyone knows we have these facilities here. I want to try to promote the grounds so that people can get the most use out of them – they can grow their plants here and enter the Smith Quad competition. We also invite a number of schools to come and look around the facilities to hopefully inspire them to take up plant sciences. Daivd next to tree

How does this role benefit the person reading the blog?

I think it’s crucial what we do here. I’ve always worked in the horticulture industry and I can see how important plants are. They always seem to be the area that is funded least and it is often laughed at by other people. The more we discover about science, the more we realise the fact that we rely on plants. We are a type 0 civilisation where we rely on plants and animals to survive. I think to pull money from plant science is silly and it is only now that humanity is starting to see the true value of the environment we live in.

How did you first get interested in horticulture?

David with HoseI think it was from school. We had trips out to places with outreach facilities – similar to the botanical gardens. From there I did a YTS (youth training scheme) in studying city and guilds horticulture which I really liked. I then went into working with sports turf, interior landscaping and various other areas of horticulture that has benefited my knowledge for this role.

Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?

No one in particular.

Obviously there’s a lot of great scientists like Einstein who had great minds and high IQ’s. I tend to try and not glorify the past too much because I think that stuff that is going on now – even within FLS – is quite amazing. I think we might see a few more heroes in the future which might be alive today. Some of the research done here and the papers that have been published are really important.

How has working in Manchester helped you?

I think it has been great. I’ve always worked within some aspect of horticulture and I have always been curious about why we do certain practices. To come and actually see the science and to work with the research has really answered a few questions for me and helped my curiosity. Also the teamwork that’s involved in the faculty –it’s a great place to work. I’ve met some really good people from working here.

What do you do outside of work?

When I’m not gardening at home, I play in a band. I have done since I’m 18. I really like music. I also play football within the University. On Wednesday’s I play 5 a-side football with members of the University – it’s always important to stay fit and football is the one that doesn’t feel like a lot of work because it’s fun! I’m also interested in astrophysics alongside life science.

And that wraps up another episode of the Tuesday Feature! Our thanks go to David who gave us a beautiful afternoon out in the sun! On Wednesday 6th  May, David is hosting a technicians seminar titled ‘Not Green Fingered? An introduction to Horticulture’ at 1pm in A.V. Hill. He’d love to have you there! 

Faculty student to give presentation at UK PlantSci 2015.

Faculty student Emily Schofield has recently been chosen to give a presentation at the UK PlantSci 2015 confereem photonce.

An annual event hosted by the UK Plant Sciences Federation, UK PlantSci brings together eminent plant scientists from all over the UK to discuss research and outreach. The conference, that takes place over two days on the 14-15th April, will feature a range of interesting talks from leading professionals in their field.

Emily, who is a 3rd year Plant Science undergraduate, has been chosen to give a talk on orchids. The talk entitled ‘Fungal symbionts and their role in germination and seedling development in British orchids’ is part of a series of talks about ‘Roots and soil – Finding riches in the dirt’. It is based on Emily’s work with Kew Gardens. She is there as part of her third year industrial placement, where students are able to get real-world experience in their degree area.

Emily says:

‘The application was to write an abstract for a current area of research. I chose to focus on British orchids as the data we were getting looked really interesting. It’s really exciting to be chosen to present at a national conference, I can’t wait to meet other scientists passionate about plants.’

For more information about the conference, please go to

What I learnt this week part 3 (Guest blog by Elinor Bridges)

Elinor BridgesHi everyone, I’m back – which fortunately means I wasn’t crushed under a growing pile of books last week in an effort to finish my coursework on time. Lucky for you, this past week of essays and a brief tryst with some early revision have taught me a lot. Now, it is time for me to pass the fruits of my laborious week onto yourselves. Please enjoy these seeds of knowledge, and let us hope your metaphorical mind is awash with lichen so that they may germinate.

I’m lichen the side of this mountain

Yes, it is pronounced lie-ken, not lich-in.

Lichen are a symbiosis between two types of organism, as I rediscovered during an optimistic, yet ultimately short-lived, revision session for Microbes, Man and the Environment. Lichen are made up of two components: a photosynthetic alga and a fungus. Each organism has something to offer its partner – rather like any partnership. The alga provides the fungus with sugars, while the fungus attaches to a surface for the lichen to live on and protects the alga from desiccation. While this might sound likeLichen-covered_tree,_Tresco something of a fragile being, these little guys are extremely hardy. They can live in incredibly harsh environments, and as alluded to above, are the only known organism type that can colonise bare rock. It is a testament to their toughness that they can survive on mountains for over 4000 years.

Colonisation by lichen is vital for ecosystems in certain areas, with lichen also making homes on tree bark and rooftops. When the lichen colonises a new substrate, it brings organic molecules into the area. When the lichen dies, it breaks down and forms a basic soil. If a lucky, wind-dispersed seed drifts in the right direction, it might just find itself landing on a spot that used to be a lichen. The presence of the soil means it is possible for the seed to germinate in that particular place, leading to a plant growing on the previously bare surface. This can begin a chain reaction which eventually leads to a whole community of organisms living in a place that was once as barren as the library during the Easter break.

(Foxg)love hearts

Despite the enduring chill, its undeniable that spring is in the air – a time associated with flowering plants and new love. While this post may be rather heavy on the plants, the closest we get to love is rather symbolic – hearts. For an essay exploring the influence of herbal remedies on modern medicine, I found myself learning an awful lot about hearts and the common foxglove.

Digitalis purpurea2 by Kurt StüberThis plant has been used as a herbal remedy for centuries, intended as a cure for a huge variety of illnesses. It has even been used to encourage vomiting in patients as it was sometimes believed that this would help them – because all you need when you’re under-the-weather is a poisonous plant rubbed onto your skin to make you vomit. Fortunately, the wonderful William Withering published something that could be recognized as a scientific study into foxglove in 1785. Here, he discussed use of foxglove in helping those with heart problems. As it turns out, he was onto something. Today, a compound from the foxglove is used in the treatment of cardiac arrhythmias – irregular beating of the heart. In just the right quantities, the compound alters the behaviour of the sodium-potassium pump in cell membranes to encourage a stronger and steadier heart rate.

Unlike in Withering’s time, the doses given today are highly researched and unlikely to poison you, but if you see a foxglove when you’re out and about I wouldn’t recommend giving it a try!


Thus concludes another summary of what I learnt this week. I am now preparing to delve into the darkest, messiest and most incomprehensible lecture notes ever scrawled in an attempt to make some sense of them. Hopefully I will be able to tease some interesting stories out of them for my final instalment on this blog. Until next week!