IMDEA Water in-depth: Microbial contamination and Cyanobacteria

Published On: July 19, 2021
Details of the work carried out by this research group at IMDEA Water

The microbiological contamination and cyanobacteria group, led by María Blanca Sánchez Martínez, PhD in Molecular Biology, since 2017, focuses on two lines of research. Firstly, it offers technology-based solutions against harmful algal blooms, and secondly, it studies the impact of pollutants (antibiotics and biocides) on microorganisms and antibiotic resistance in aquatic ecosystems.

Protect water safety is pressing issue because of the worsening of water quality in many aquatic ecosystems. The abundance of certain harmful microorganisms (e.g., bacteria, viruses, and protozoa) in waterbodies intended to recreational and drinking water purposes poses a serious risk to the environment and human health.

Amongst the harmful non-infectious microorganisms, cyanobacteria require special attention. These photosynthetic bacteria are present worldwide and they play an important role in the global cycle of nutrients. While they have biotechnological and medical applications, some species produce a wide range of toxic compounds, which can affect different organs and tissues. Microcystins – liver toxins – are an example, which concentration should not exceed 1 µg/L in drinking water, according to the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO).

The massive proliferation of toxic cyanobacteria in water bodies is known as harmful algae blooms. This event – with environmental, economic, and public health implications – is being studied by the team at IMDEA Agua. These research group focuses on the design of monitoring programs for tracking harmful algae blooms at real-time in inland waterbodies, and on the development of efficient and low-cost technologies for treating microcystin polluted water using biological processes. 

Ángel Guillermo Pompa Pernía, a researcher at IMDEA Water, together with Juan Antonio Pascual and Jesús Morón López, associated researchers to IMDEA Water, have participated in the recently completed CianoMod project. During this project, which has been supported by the Biodiversity Foundation of the Ministry for the Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge, they implemented a real time monitoring system that uses remote sensing techniques and data acquisition systems to track algae and cyanobacterial proliferation events linked to climate change.

The massive data obtained during the project period will allow the development of predictive models to alert about the presence of harmful algae blooms in vulnerable areas, both nationally and internationally. Similarly, the direct participation of citizens in the project has contributed to raise their awareness on the impacts of climate change and the sustainable use of water resources. Both a website and an App – available for Android and iOS – are available for free consultation of parameters related to water quality in two Spanish water bodies: the As Conchas reservoir (Ourense) and the L'Albufera Lagoon (Valencia).

The second line of research focuses on the study of the presence of microorganisms, mainly those that can cause infections and also present resistance to antibiotics, in the aquatic environment. This line also addresses the effect that different pollutants (biocides and antibiotics) present in the environment as a consequence of their use by humankind, can have on the appearance of resistant bacteria and the horizontal transfer of resistance genes.

Recently, part of the study of the effect of a biocide on the appearance of resistance to this compound and different antibiotics, using a model bacterium, has been presented at the XXVIII Congress of the Spanish Society of Microbiology (from 28th June to 2nd July 2021). Also, in collaboration with the SWQ group, the presence of multidrug resistant bacteria in the water used for irrigation of a crop has been studied, presenting part of this work at the SETAC Congress (3rd-6th May 2021). All of this is included within the One-Health concept – where human, animal and environmental health is taken into account – with water being one of the main connection routes between them.


CIANOMOD Project with the support of:

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