SNV Story No. 8: How algae are used to test the quality of our water

Expert profile of Dr Cornelia Kienle

Algae are a true natural wonder, and their uses are as diverse as they are surprising. They bring that je ne sais quoi to superlative sushi, help power engines and are traded as superfoods. But did you know that there is an algae bank in Northern Germany? In this SNV story, you will find out why the Swiss Ecotox Centre is one of the algae bank’s permanent customers, and what this fact has to do with standards.

A fascination with the aquatic world
For this story, we spoke to biologist Dr Cornelia Kienle. Since childhood, she has been fascinated with water and everything that lives in it. It is therefore unsurprising that, when she was still a girl, she transformed her parents’ pond into a test laboratory and enjoyed biology more than any other subject at school. During her university studies, her interests grew to include marine biology and the effects of pollutants on bodies of water. In her doctoral thesis, she engaged intensively with the influence of oxygenation deficiency and pollutants on the development of fish embryos and larvae. Dr Cornelia Kienle has been working as a scientist at the Ecotox Centre since its foundation in 2008, and is also active as an SNV expert.

Image caption: Dr Cornelia Kienle in the laboratory of the Ecotox Centre in Dübendorf

Good water quality benefits us all
The Ecotox Centre in Dübendorf is Switzerland’s centre for applied ecotoxicology. It assesses the impact of chemicals on our environment and develops strategies for evaluating and mitigating risks. The majority of the projects carried out at the Centre are either self-funded or commissioned by its most important client, the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN). Among other things, Dr Cornelia Kienle observes the water quality in water treatment plants after different treatment stages. The more effective the water treatment plant, the greater the benefits to the water cycle. In this context, she and her team work with so-called biotests. In layperson’s terms, these tests involve adding living cells or organisms to the water and analyzing the level and the effects of any micropollutants still present. To ensure that more of these biotests are conducted in a standardized manner both nationally and internationally in future, the Ecotox Centre is collaborating with the Swiss Association for Standardization to conduct pioneering work.

Not all algae are the same
From her predecessor, Dr Cornelia Kienle inherited her status as an SNV expert and her role as chair of standardization committee 107, “Water quality”. However, professional discussions at the national and international level are nothing new to her, as she has been active in biotest working groups for a while now. And it has become apparent to her time and again that the need for standardized biotests is growing. Test results are only comparable when it can be guaranteed that they have been carried out in a uniform manner. To this end, she is working together with the SNV to define standards that can serve as the basis for an ISO standard and for the enforcement of these standards at the international level. The Ecotox Centre is planning to submit an application to the SNV for a new ISO standard relating to algae-based biotests this year. As part of the standardization process, the materials, the methodology and the documentation involved in biotests are being precisely prescribed, and the comparability of results from different laboratories is minutely evaluated. This is the context in which the algae bank in Germany comes into play. Instead of gold bars, its deposit boxes contain painstakingly indexed algae cultures. If a laboratory wishes to conduct a standardized biotest, it must source its algae exclusively from such an official body. The standardized biotest is similar to a recipe, with even the wording of the initial steps being reminiscent of that found in cookery books.

Image caption: Algae under the microscope at the Ecotox Centre in Dübendorf

The water treatment plants of the future
One example for the intensive use of biotests is the analysis of the effects of micropollutants on water-dwelling organisms in Swiss water treatment plants, and the issuing of action recommendations for optimizing the respective plant’s operations. Today, there are two main techniques for improving water quality, i.e. ozonation and treatment with active charcoal; these are deployed after the biological treatment stage. The Ecotox Centre has been collaborating with the FOEN, the Swiss Water Association (VSA) and various water treatment plant operators for some time now in order to investigate the benefits and the efficiency of such advanced water treatment processes with the aid of biotests. Also involved in this process is Eawag, ETH Zurich’s Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, which provides support in the form of chemical analyses. It is down to the success of this collaboration that around 100 Swiss water treatment plants will soon be equipped with cutting-edge technology. Switzerland is thereby securing a leading international position in terms of the water quality provided by water treatment plants. This benefits not only our reputation, but also the country’s entire population, fauna and cultural landscape.

Where there is water, there is life
The quality of our water determines the quality of our lives. Dr Cornelia Kienle and her team at the Ecotox Centre dedicate each day to this end. The standardization of biotests is an important prerequisite to their work having a major international impact. Yet the Ecotox Centre is in no danger of running out of tasks. There are still plenty of other areas requiring improvements and standards. One keyword here: agriculture. For example, the canton of Thurgau initiated a project in collaboration with local farmers in which measures designed to reduce agricultural run-off are implemented. The Ecotox Centre is monitoring the success of these measures with the use of biotests. It is easy to see why this varied work ticks all the boxes for the dream job of a biologist and nature-lover. The only small downside? You cannot be beside the seaside in Switzerland.

Picture sources:  Ecotox Centre in Dübendorf

Everyone can help improve water quality: five simple rules for everyday life

  1. Save water
    Turn off the tap while cleaning your teeth; fit aerators to your taps
  2. Shop smart
    Pay attention to biodegradable ingredients (detergents, shampoos, cleaning products, etc.)
  3. Use the correct dosage
    Observe manufacturer recommendations
  4. Dispose of waste items correctly
    Never flush medication down the toilet
  5. Engage critically
    You do not need special cleaning products for everything; water by itself is often sufficient
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