Cell collaboration makes a splash

A multinational project to better detect pollution impacts on aquatic ecosystems has emerged from a COST Action. The Action, which promotes cross-disciplinary work to understand cell processes, could lead to further collaborations that benefit drug development and the environment.

Sometimes it takes a new perspective to solve a problem. Biologists, chemists, and molecular physicists are joining forces to better understand crucial life processes that occur in cells. Their combined insights could overcome challenges such as developing new bio-based drugs and cleaning up polluted ecosystems.

COST Action CA15126 ‘Between Atom and Cell: Integrating Molecular Biophysics Approaches for Biology and Healthcare’ (ARBRE-MOBIEU) is helping to start this long-term collaboration. Between 2016 and 2020, the Action’s 360 participants to date are creating a permanent ‘virtual lab’ to share equipment across Europe, laying the ground for joint research projects and helping manufacturers to create new instruments for stronger research.

The first publications from the 30-country network have focused on how techniques used in physics and biophysics could help scientists to discover new drugs. However, another early success had a more environmental focus.

This was an international project from 2017 to 2018 on how algae can indicate pollution in aquatic ecosystems. Funded by the International Visegrad Fund, the project included researchers from the Ruđer Bošković Institute in Croatia, the Czech Technical University in Prague, the University of Szeged in Hungary, and the University of Ss. Cyril and Methodius in Slovakia.

Heavy-metal impact

The idea for the project began when Dr Nadica Ivošević DeNardis, a biophysicist at the Ruđer Bošković Institute, got to know researchers from Czechia, Hungary and Slovakia at ARBRE-MOBIEU’s first annual meeting. They found a shared interest in discovering how algae cells change when heavy metals are present in aquatic systems.

“It is a big man-made environmental issue,” DeNardis explains. Metals such as cadmium are found in batteries, oils, dyes and paint on boats. Even small concentrations are harmful to ecosystems – EU standards allow only 1.3 micrograms of cadmium to be present per litre of water. Humans are also at risk. “It can get into the food chain through algae,” says DeNardis.

The team obtained funding thanks to a grant call database that ARBRE-MOBIEU set up for its participants. In just three months, DeNardis put together a proposal. Less than two months later, the project was approved.

Sharing equipment and expertise, the four-country team studied how algal cells adapt to environmental stress. “For example, their motility goes down, physiological activity increases, they become stiffer and express specific proteins that are important for photosynthesis,” reveals DeNardis. The project’s findings can help scientists worldwide to model how algae adapt in polluted aquatic environments, to identify and understand ecosystem risks from human activity.


Pooling information

DeNardis and her colleagues are sharing this valuable information with other scientists to apply to their own research. They started with the third annual ARBRE-MOBIEU meeting, where an impressive 180 researchers and 17 industrial partners attended a presentation of the project’s results. Polish colleagues from the COST Action are now helping DeNardis to continue her work in a new project, CELLSTRESS, funded by the Croatian Science Foundation.

She says that ARBRE-MOBEU was the first Action of its size in its field and expects more projects to result. “We have a pool of information to develop ideas. I will definitely take part in more COST Actions.”

View the Action: https://www.cost.eu/actions/CA15126

View the Network website: https://arbre-mobieu.eu/