Environmental Biotechnology and Bioengineering research line

Line Coordinator

Madalena Alves

Research groups

This thematic line is focused on fundamental and applied research, aiming at the development, use and regulation of biological systems for the remediation of contaminated environments (soil, sediments, air and water) and for the definition of environmentally friendly processes and green manufacturing technologies within the paradigm of a sustainable development. This Line presents a significant research activity in the exploitation, identification and preservation of microbial diversity as a platform for the development of technologies for environmental remediation and valorization of recalcitrant as well as of bio-waste materials (with conversion into liquid and gaseous bioenergy carriers, bioelectricity, new catalysts) and in applied environmental microbiology. Within this perspective, Environmental Biotechnology and Bioengineering can be described as "the optimal use of nature, in the form of plants, animals, and microorganisms, to produce renewable energy, food and nutrients in a synergistic integrated cycle of profit making processes where the waste of each process becomes the feedstock for another process".

The activity of this line is structured in 3 work tasks focused on different stages of research:

  • Fundamentals and tools;
  • Development of products, processes and technologies;
  • Demonstration actions;

The main research vectors are integrated in the goals of sustainable growth, namely by: building a more competitive low carbon economy towards an efficient and sustainable use of resources; protecting the environment, reducing emission and preventing biodiversity loss; and capitalizing on Europe’s leadership in developing new green technologies and production methods. These objectives are also aligned with the proposals of the resource–efficient Europe Flagship initiative under the Europe 2020 Strategy that stresses that raw materials such as fuels, minerals, metals but also food, soil, water, air, biomass and ecosystems are suffering from pressure due to the intensive use of the world resources.

The Environment is a field where collaborative research traditionally has proven to be fruitful. In this sense, the Environmental Biotechnology and Bioengineering thematic line merges the work and scientific goals of BRIDGE, AMG and BIOSYSTEMS research groups. All these groups have a consolidated research activity in the large domain of Environmental Biotechnology and Bioengineering and share the same objectives of creating knowledge and value in this research area, through the exploitation of complementary perspectives.

The objectives of this Line comprise fundamental research, development/application of new tools, development of new processes, patenting and proof of concepts towards the translation to the market. At the fundamental level , the main objectives include the isolation, identification and preservation of microbial resources, the development and application of molecular tools and computational platforms for analysis, optimization monitoring and control of natural and engineered environmental systems. AMG, through “Micoteca da Universidade do Minho – MUM”, has consolidated activity in the identification and preservation of fungi. MUM is a member of the European Culture Collections Organization (ECCO) and it is currently in the core group of the MIRRI EU-project. BRIDGE aims at studying the physiology of new anaerobic bacteria and archaea, in order to explore the potential of currently isolated anaerobes for biotechnology applications, in the framework of the ERC advanced grant project “Novel Anaerobes”.

The development and application of molecular tools will include the routine application of metaomics tools for the study of microbial communities linking microbial composition with respective function. A close collaboration with the bioinformatic sub-group of BIOSYSTEMS will be strengthened.

A user-friendly computational platform offering a set of collection and analysis tools for WWTP professionals and researchers will be improved. In this field, research is moving from individual population targets to the comprehension of multispecies interactions.

Also image analysis, spectroscopy techniques (NIR, UV) and chemometric methods for advanced monitoring of WWTP involve BRIDGE and BIOSYSTEMS groups.

Concerning applications , several processes are being developed or improved for wastewater treatment and bioremediation purposes, including the recovery of nutrients and electricity, from source collected urine (FP7 project), a new low-cost process for heavy metals removal by biosorption, targeted at small but locally vibrant industries producing wastewater with low concentrations of solvents and/or metals, the development of new catalysts and the definition of environmental catalytic applications of solid matrices with fused metal loaded biomass. Artificial consortia immobilized in multilayers of latex nanobeads will be further developed for wastewater treatment and biohydrogen production. Anaerobic treatment of industrial effluents with high content of lipids will be further optimized. New biofilm technologies for removal of nitrate with solid biopolymers and new sorbents for the capture of phosphorus released from sediments, will be further improved. Bioremediation of soil/wastewater contaminated with hydrocarbons (HC) will be studied under different redox conditions and also associated to the conversion of HC into bacterial oil. Processes for efficient hydrogen and methane production and syngas fermentation processes at moderate pressure are being developed.

Patenting and proof of concepts of technologies will continue aiming at technology transfer to the market. Specifically the IASB and SLS patented reactors for treatment of industrial effluents and organic waste with high content of lipids, a new bioreactor for heavy metal biosorption and a decentralized low cost wastewater treatment will be implemented in local industries and organizations.