Selected running projects


Active passive water pollution sampling device (WATERSIDE). 01/05/2019 -30/04/2020


Previously an active passive sampler for accumulation of pollutants from water was developed into a laboratory prototype. Its n°1 feature is controlled flow through the device, such that sampling is independent of hydrodynamic flow in the water body. This project will establish a field-deployable prototype. Its valorization value lies in standardization and the replacement of biota sampling.

Funding: IOF POC

Promotor: Ronny Blust; Co-promotors: Lieven Bervoets, Tom Breugelmans, Maarten Weyn

Research teams: SPHERE, ELCAT, IDlab 

Comprehensive Liquid Chromatography - Ion Mobility - Quadrupole-Time-of-Flight Mass Spectrometry for innovative metabolomics. 01/05/2018 -30/04/2021


The requested infrastructure (comprehensive liquid chromatograph-ion mobility-quadrupole time of flight mass spectrometer LCxLC-IM-QTOFMS) combines several state-of-the-art technologies into one platform which aims at bringing metabolomics research to the next level. As such, the infrastructure will deliver a combined five-dimension separation and detection technology, the first of its kind in Belgium. This instrument will be dedicated to metabolomics research, the science of endogenous metabolites in cells, tissues or organisms. The infrastructure will be able to optimally separate, detect and identify the very broad and complex chemical space of metabolites ranging from very polar (e.g. amino acids) to non-polar (e.g. lipids and hormones) at low nanomolar concentration range. Within UA, there is a growing need to combine the currently scattered efforts in metabolomics, an Emerging Frontline Research Domain in the UA research scene. Research ranges from drug discovery (mode of action and pharmacokinetic profiling), biomarker and toxicity studies to advanced data-analysis and systems biology approaches, but a dedicated metabolomics infrastructure to strengthen these studies is currently missing. As such, the investment in a core facility together with the gathering of nine research groups from five departments and two faculties would centralize the metabolomics research. This will position UA as a key player in the academic metabolomics research in the BeNeLux and worldwide.

Funding: FWO research infrastructure

Promotor: Adrian Covaci ; Co-promotors: Koen Augustyns, Geert Baggerman, Lieven Bervoets, Ingrid De Meester, Guido De Meyer, Nina Hermans, Kris Laukens, Filip Lemiere, Louis Maes, Alexander van Nuijs

Research teams: Toxicological Centre and SPHERE

Chemical information mining of wastewater – From human exposure to environmental fate of emerging plasticizers and flame retardants 01/10/2017 -30/09/2020


We and our surrounding environment are constantly and increasingly exposed to synthetic chemicals, some of which have been shown to cause adverse biological or toxicological effects. Whilst the toxicity of some chemicals has been recognised, leading to their ban or regulated use, many substitutes, for which toxicity has not yet been fully assessed, are continuously being introduced. Consequently, monitoring human exposure and environmental fate of future/emerging contaminants is crucial. In this regard, wastewater plays a central role. Being, on the one hand, a pooled diluted sample of human urine, its composition can provide valuable information about the types and amounts of contaminants to which humans have been exposed to. On the other hand, it is recognised as one of the main sources of contaminants for the environment. This project aims at mining the chemical information contained in wastewater to obtain valuable geographical and temporal information about the exposure of humans to emerging contaminants, as well as to understand the environmental fate of these compounds. (i) Dedicated analytical methods will be developed to identify human metabolites of targeted emerging contaminants (plasticizers and flame retardants). (ii) Fate of these chemicals during wastewater treatment and their occurrence in wastewater of Flemish cities will be investigated. (iii) The gathered data will then be used to model community-wide exposure to these contaminants.

Funding: FWO

Promotor: Adrian Covaci ; Co-promotor: Alexander van Nuijs ; Fellow: Frederic Been

Research team: Toxicological Centre

Assessing the adverse effects of Perfluoralkyl compounds on birds: an integrated field and laboratory approach using passerine birds as model system 01/10/2017 -30/09/2020


Perfluoroalkyl acids (PFAAs) are substances which have been produced for more than five decades. Their unique properties of repelling both water and oil, make them suitable for many industrial and consumer applications such as water and dirt repellents for cloths and carpets, active components in firefighting foams or precursors in Teflon® production. Its extended use, together with their high persistence, resulted in a global contamination of the environment, wildlife and even humans. This ubiquity contrasts sharply with the limited information about their effects on organisms. With this study I will contribute to finding answers to fill some of the most important knowledge gaps in the toxicity mechanisms of these compounds. For this purpose, I will use two model bird species: great tits (Parus major) and canaries (Serinus canaria). Firstly, I will study the PFAAs exposure levels and the fitness consequences in free-living great tits along a PFAAs gradient from a fluorichemical plant in Antwerp, Belgium. Secondly, I will reproduce the exposure levels in captive canaries in order to replicate the results, found in the field, in a more controlled environment. The studied biomarkers will cover several levels of biological organization, from molecular to individual responses. As a result of my study, the PFAAs toxicity mechanisms will be better understood and their impact at an individual and population level can be more accurately forecasted.

Funding: FWO

Promotor: Marcel Eens; Co-promotor: Lieven Bervoets; Fellow: Ana Lopez Antia

Research teams: BECO and SPHERE

Baltic Sea multilevel health impacts on key species of anthropogenic hazardous substances (BONUS BALTHEALTH). 01/04/2017 -31/03/2020


The Baltic ecosystem has undergone drastic changes over the past century due to a combination of anthropogenic and natural stressors. As is often the case, these changes have been most notably documented in charismatic wildlife species, including grey (Halichoerus grypus) and ringed seals (Pusa hispida), white-tailed eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla) and otters (Lutra lutra). The concept of BONUS BALTHEALTH is to provide integrated tools that allow for the assessment of the anthropogenic impacts on the ecological functioning and overall health of the Baltic ecosystem.

Funding: BONUS

Promotor: Adrian Covaci

Research team: Toxicological Centre

Unravelling the non-specific mechanisms underlying non-polar narcotic toxicity: mitochondrial effects. 01/01/2017 -31/12/2020


At least 60% of all industrial chemicals cause environmental toxicity through a mechanism called narcosis. In a toxicological context, the term narcosis refers to lipophilic chemicals accumulating in cellular membranes. There is an urgent need for a better understanding of sublethal narcosis effects to improve environmental risk assessment of this vast body of chemicals. Based on direct and indirect evidence from both our own preliminary results and literature, we hypothesize that narcotics impair mitochondrial membrane-bound processes. The central objective of this project is to develop a detailed description of the molecular, cellular and organismal cascade of events resulting from accumulation of narcotics in mitochondrial membranes. We will use cell lines and zebrafish embryos. First, we will study the impact of narcotics on mitochondrial structure and essential functions. Secondly, we will characterize organismal effects which are of direct ecological relevance for risk assessment. Thirdly, we will use specific mitochondrial inhibitors to validate whether they produce the same cascade of events, from the molecular (RNA-seq, whole transcriptome Next Generation Sequencing) to the organismal level. In the final and most challenging work package we will use state-of-the-art imaging technology to visualize the dynamics of accumulation of narcotics in live zebrafish embryos, and subcellular accumulation behaviour.

Funding: FWO

Promotor: Ronny Blust; Co-promotor: Dries Knapen

Research teams: SPHERE and zebrafish lab

Mixed metal and temperature stress in aquatic environments establishing functional links across different levels of organisation. 01/01/2016 -31/12/2019


The aquatic environment is continuously challenged by anthropogenic stressors of which exposure to mixtures of chemicals is one of the most important. In most cases the resulting environmental impact is caused by a combination of natural and anthropogenic stressors with very different modes of action. In this project we explore the importance and nature of these interactions on three model species and a mesocosm scale simulated ecosystem.

Funding: BOF

Promotor: Ronny Blust; Co-promotors: Lieven Bervoets, Gudrun De Boeck

Research team: SPHERE