Indian researcher Guna Pavithra grew up from 6 to 18 years old in the midst of nature in southern India. He attended Laidlaw Memorial School in St. George Houses in Keti, embeded in a forested area of the valley near the Nilgiri Mountains, a mountain range in the western part of Tamil Nadu.
If we look up the area on the map, we see a vast green patch, part of which has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO since 2012, with the inscription Western Ghats. It is considered a biodiversity paradise.
So whenever I went to visit her hometown, about 400 kilometers south, in Sivakasi, the world was shocked. “It was a very great contradiction that saddened me: a filthy and polluted place, which made me believe that science had solutions to combat the world’s problems.” Guna believes he can contribute to making that difference, while also promoting environmental literacy, not least because he dreams of one day being able to teach.
Today, at the age of 25, he works between the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Porto (FCUP) and the Interdisciplinary Center for Marine and Environmental Research (CIIMAR), in Matosinhos, near Porto, to find a solution to clean water in rivers and lakes used for agricultural irrigation. For this purpose, you will use aquatic plants, such as reeds, agricultural residues, especially rice husks, cork and olive pomace.
The name of the doctoral research is “Eco-Technologies for Treating Water Contaminated with Cyanotic Toxins” and the goal is to “find models of built-up wetlands” [ZHC] To remove toxic cyanobacteria and toxic toxins in nutritious raw water.”
What are cyanobacteria and cyanotoxins? Guna answers with a question: “Have you ever seen algae reproduce in a lake? It is a naturally greenish mass in places where the air is warmer, and it is mainly nutrient rich water, where there are many nutrients and which arises with the sudden increase in temperature Sometimes it’s just a natural reproduction of algae, and sometimes it’s toxic when the cyanobacteria are blooming.” This phenomenon is also found in softer wetlands, such as rocks.
On his cell phone, Guna shows an illustration of how ZHC was made to combat this toxicity. “At the bottom we have a layer of gravel for drainage,” and then we have another layer with porous material – as an example of volcanic rock in the picture that the world reveals – and above that, roots and a plant substrate, “which is Phragmite Australiathe reeds that we find in swampy areas.
In other words, you want to find the most efficient technological eco-model from the combination of biochemical properties of plants – ecologically appropriate – that manages the removal of toxic organisms and toxins from some species in an aquatic ecosystem, such as lakes, ponds, reservoirs, irrigation water systems, and health restoration of water.
Jona’s doctoral research – under the supervision of biologist Alexandre Campos and joint supervision of researcher Marisa Almeida, specializing in ZHC – is funded by about 115 thousand euros, for three years, by the “La Caixa” Foundation and is part of the EU TOXICROP research project, which focuses On assessing the risks of using nutrient water in agriculture.
It is an international consortium bringing together institutions from Portugal (CIIMAR and NOSTOC – Laboratory of Biological Research Lda.), Spain (Universidad de Sevilla and Laboratorio CIFGA SA, in Lugo), Denmark (Aarhus University), Morocco (University of Cadiz), Ayyad, Marrakesh) , Egypt (Sohag University), Colombia (Pereira Technological University), Peru (St. Augustine National University, Arequipa) and Slovenia (Limnos Corporation).
The ecologist’s research is particularly relevant in the current context in which not only extreme human activity continues, but clean fresh water has also become a scarce commodity worldwide.
“This has led to the use of nutrient water, or low-quality water, contaminated with cyanobacteria and cyanogenic toxins, especially for irrigation, which in turn pollutes farms,” explains the young scientist. This pollution has consequences for human health, “causing food insecurity and threatening public health.”
Currently, traditional water treatment solutions are expensive, require specialized equipment and specialists, as well as the creation of specific power infrastructures. This makes the installation of treatment systems in rural areas unsustainable. On the contrary, ZHCs are environmentally friendly, and water treatment technologies are economically feasible and sustainable.
Effect of microorganisms, plants, sedimentation, sedimentation and sorption capabilities [adesão de moléculas a uma superfície] of built wetlands [ZHC] It allows us to create this technology to remove organic compounds and various pollutants from the water.”
Guna Pavithera arrived in Portugal in November 2021. In his spare time, he practices water gardening and enjoys playing chess. He graduated in Biology from Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT), in Vellore, where he proceeded with an integrated master’s degree in Biotechnology.
In the third year, the scientist was skeptical about which course of investigations to take, until I attended a course in nanotoxicology. “It was mainly about nanoparticles that are very toxic in the environment, such as those found in all the commercial products we use, such as sunscreens, detergents, etc. After completing this workshop, I focused on water treatment techniques and environmental toxicology in general. “
In 2018, the master’s penultimate year, he got the answer he needed to make a decision about moving forward. He attended a class given by the Director of CIIMAR, biologist Vitor Vasconcelos, who was a visiting professor at VIT.
“He introduced his line of work on cyanobacteria and I was very excited to come to CIIMAR to do my final year of my dissertation.” Between 2018 and 2019 he first lived in Portugal, where he began his research work. The topic of the master’s thesis was “Possibility of creating wetlands to remove cyanobacteria and microbags from polluted fresh water”.
Although CIIMAR has already worked with built-up wetlands, it has never worked with cyanotoxins as pollutants, but more so with petroleum pollutants, antibiotics, and other effluents. So it was a novel concept at the time, and I was going to examine the potential of the preserved wetland for distant cyanotoxin.”
In 2019, after obtaining his master’s degree, Guna returned to India. He worked for a pharmaceutical company in Bangalore, where he helped study a drug used to fight breast cancer. The medical field interested him, but the way was not like that. I left after a year.
Since she loves to write and doesn’t want to sit still, she worked as a platform author in a content marketing agency, while thinking about how to pursue my career as a researcher. “I loved writing my thesis. When I finished, I already knew I wanted a Ph.D., but the field of scientific research in India is very competitive, it is very rare to pursue the same research project and career progression is very slow.”
In 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, he devoted himself to finding a solution to get the Ph.D. he wanted, in the field of studies in environmental toxicology. He kept in touch with the supervisors, and when he heard about the TOXICROP project and PhD vacancies in different geographies, he began preparing the application. CIIMAR vacancy entered.
At the moment, Guna is in the initial stage. “I test the plants and the substrate separately. Once we know the most efficient material and the best performing plant, we will put it together in a complete system of compact wetlands and test it to see which material works best.”
for example? “Basically anything that is agricultural waste. In China, charcoal is used, in India coconut husk, because it is abundant and has many properties of absorbing toxins. In Portugal, there are many indigenous plants and agricultural residues that we find with adsorption properties, such as cork rice husk and olive pomace.
Others are large aquatic plants, such as sedges and reeds, which are found in estuaries: they are highly resistant, despite the pollutants in the water, and have many sorption properties and defense mechanisms.
We know that plants also aid in the decomposition of pollutants, both through their properties and their excretion, so I am trying to find the perfect balance to develop a simple, low-cost environmental technology to clean various types of cyanobacteria and toxic toxins in polluted water. “
Based on this optimization of the cleaning model – adapted to different types of cyanotoxins and cyanobacteria – which will also make it possible to understand the removal mechanisms involved, field experiments will be carried out. In addition, Guna wants to explore the application of ZHC to “remove excess levels of nutrients, in order to avoid eutrophication”. [excesso de vida vegetal por fertilização e respetiva perda de oxigénio na água] Water bodies used for irrigation.
Guna’s work is divided between CIIMAR, where he will grow the bacteria, and FCUP, where he will analyze the results. “Now, in addition to reviewing the scientific literature, I also grow different cultures of cyanobacteria, 20-40 liters. It takes about a month and a half to grow them, then harvest them, get the toxins and start my lab experiments.”
In the process, it will also contribute to “high-throughput sequencing and novel gene generation to investigate microbial activity and dynamics of microbial communities in ZHC during experimental operation”, and study of bacterial populations associated with the removal/degradation of cyanotoxins.
If all goes well, the ecologist will have found a technology from nature that can be scaled up for use in practical life and contribute to the fight against climate change as well.
“We want sustainable environmental technology where there is no waste, clean water used in agriculture, in an affordable way, and contribute to food security, while at the same time helping to clean aquatic ecosystems.”
This article is part of a series on the latest scientific research a partnership between Observador, Fundação “la Caixa” and BPI. Guna Pavithera, who is currently conducting research at CIMAR, was one of 65 (seven in Portugal) selected – out of 1,308 applications – for funding by the Barcelona-based institution, under the 2021 edition of the INPhINIT PhD Scholarship Program. The researcher received 115 thousand euros to develop the project over a period of three years. Submissions for the 2022 edition are now closed. The deadlines for the 2023 edition begin in November.