For successful and sustainable development of the bioeconomy, it is necessary to assess the consequences of new technologies on the environment already during the development process. There is a long history of expertise in the field of ecotoxicology and bioanalytics in teaching and in research at the Institute for Environmental Research at the RWTH Aachen University. Newer research focuses include green toxicology and life cycle assessment.
The teaching and research area Ecosystem Analysis celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2017. It is one of the largest university institutes working in the field of ecotoxicology in Germany. Prof. Dr. Henner Hollert´s department, also a core group at the BioSc, consists of 34 employees in three working groups and two teams and is funded by numerous third-party donors (e.g. DFG, EU, DBU, BMBF).
In ecotoxicology, research focuses on (1) the pro-and retrospective evaluation of the effects of anthropogenic pollutants from the use of a range of biotest and biomarker batteries, (2) the development, validation and optimization of effect-related test systems and (3) weight-of- evidence studies for hazard and risk assessment of environmental impacts. In particular, studies are carried out on effects on aquatic habitats due to the extensive use of the zebra danio fish (Danio rerio), considered a model organism for ecotoxicological studies of effects at the level of the molecule to the organism. This work has established the teaching and research area Ecosystem Analysis as a recognized player in the field of water analysis and evaluation. In cooperation with water engineers and hydrologists, the objective is to gain a comprehensive view of pollutants in aquatic habitats.
Research that stems from the Green Toxicology Concept forms a new focus. Green Toxicology refers to the use of predictive toxicology in the sustainable development and production of new, less harmful substances and chemicals. Green Toxicology is based on the principle of Green Chemistry and Green Engineering and the goal is to design future production processes and synthesis methods for chemicals that are safe in terms of the effects on the environment and human health (Crawford et al. 2017). The principles of Green Toxicology are an integral part of Green Chemistry and strengthen the role of health-related aspects for consumers and the environment. In addition, Green Toxicology is economical since the most environmentally-friendly products can be identified in the development of new processes.
Following the Green Toxicology Concept, toxicologically critical chemicals and materials can be sorted out already in the early stages of development through the use of suitable in vitro and in silico tools; this approach prevents both severe environmental impacts as well as expensive abandonment of development just before market launch. In addition, in complex production processes it is not immediately apparent which sub-processes include the greatest environmental impacts. Life cycle assessments can elucidate these critical points and thus highlight the greatest improvement potentials. In the Ecosystem Analysis area of teaching and research, this concept is applied, for example, in cooperation with various stakeholders in the TMFB Excellence Cluster (Bluhm et al. 2016) and the new FSC (Fuel Science Center) Cluster. Other applications include environmental impact assessment of rhamnolipids (in collaboration with the Core Group of Lars Blank; Johann et al. 2016), microplastics (Chen et al. 2017) and different bio-based molecules and nanoparticles.
Another research focus is Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). In life cycle assessments, the effects of products on the environment are examined throughout a product's entire life cycle - from raw material extraction through production and use up to disposal. Different environmental impacts are considered (e.g. climate change, ecology, biodiversity). The Hollert Core Group is researching models for characterizing ecotoxicological effects in life cycle assessments. Previous models have not been able to sufficiently integrate effects such as hormonal effects or mutagenicity in a meaningful way, for example; nevertheless, these are established endpoints in ecotoxicology. The group benefits from their expertise in bioanalytical methods – knowledge that is lacking in the classical LCA field.
The RWTH Boost Fund TEPHA (Technical Product Harvesting – near-net-shape semi-finished products made from renewable raw materials) is one example of a project relating to LCA. Technical Product Harvesting is the use of suitable biomass for the production of technical products. In particular, the focus is organic raw materials that can be influenced in their natural growth and can, for example, be transferred to usable components of architecture or for engineering applications. This project is in part implemented in collaboration with the Chair for Botany and Molecular Genetics of the RWTH Aachen University (Core Group of Prof. Usadel and Dr. Wormit). The main objective of the environmental subproject is to account for overall environmental impacts of products generated by near-net-shape growth (Kämpfer et al. 2017).
Over the past few years, the work of the Ecosystem Analysis teaching and research area has increasingly turned to the role of environmental assessment to contribute to the success of a sustainable bioeconomy. The key question is how – in the sense of Green Toxicology or by means of environmental accounting, for example - environmental assessment can detect undesirable effects of bio-based processes, thus steering the development of technologies towards the greatest possible sustainability and making a decisive contribution to establishing the bioeconomy.
Kampfer, C., Seiler, T.B., Beger, A.L., Jacobs, G., Lower, M., Moser, F., Reimer, J., Trautz, M., Usadel, B., Wormit, A. and Hollert, H. (2017) Life cycle assessment and sustainable engineering in the context of near net shape grown components: striving towards a sustainable way of future production. Environmental Sciences Europe 29. Open access unter: https://enveurope.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s12302-017-0125-x
Crawford, S.E., Hartung, T., Hollert, H., Mathes, B., van Ravenzwaay, B., Steger-Hartmann, T., Studer, C. and Krug, H.F. (2017) Green Toxicology: a strategy for sustainable chemical and material development. Environmental Sciences Europe 29. Open Access unter: https://enveurope.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s12302-017-0115-z
Johann, S., Seiler, T.B., Tiso, T., Bluhm, K., Blank, L.M. and Hollert, H. (2016) Mechanism-specific and whole-organism ecotoxicity of mono-rhamnolipids. Sci Total Environ 548-549, 155-163.
Chen, Q., Gundlach, M., Yang, S., Jiang, J., Velki, M., Yin, D. and Hollert, H. (2017) Quantitative investigation of the mechanisms of microplastics and nanoplastics toward zebrafish larvae locomotor activity. Sci Total Environ 584-585, 1022-1031.
Bluhm, K., Seiler, T.B., Anders, N., Klankermayer, J., Schaeffer, A. and Hollert, H. (2016) Acute embryo toxicity and teratogenicity of three potential biofuels also used as flavor or solvent. Sci Total Environ 566-567, 786-795.