Power of community

EMBL Director Matthias Hentze describes the Environmental Research Initiative: a community effort to solve global environmental challenges

Man in white shirt and blue jeans standing on a terrace in front of trees, facing the camera.
EMBL Director Matthias Hentze. Credit: Massimo Del Prete/EMBL

By Niki Pham, ERI Project Officer

EMBL Director Matthias Hentze has set a challenge for EMBL scientists – to find solutions to society’s most pressing environmental issues through molecular life science research. Supported by philanthropy, this is the aim of the Environmental Research Initiative (ERI), which he launched in 2020.

What inspired you to start ERI? What are your hopes for the initiative?

My inspiration comes from three angles. First, it’s clear that society needs solutions to environmental challenges. Second, EMBL’s brilliant research culture, which empowers young scientists to make their scientific ideas and dreams a reality, is more than enough inspiration in itself, and is a goldmine of unexplored potential. The third is personal. I celebrated my 60th birthday last year and I feel a really strong commitment to making a healthier planet for my grandchildren and future generations. My hope is that ERI will contribute to research that helps pave the way for solutions for our planet.

How can research at EMBL help us find solutions to global environmental challenges?

Some environmental challenges, like loss of biodiversity and the spread of infectious diseases, are biological in nature and can also be solved biologically. On the other hand, some are not. Where biology is not a part of the problem, however, it can become part of the solution, for example with pollution and climate change. The next EMBL Programme, starting in 2022, will focus on understanding life at the molecular level in the context of its natural environment – not just in the laboratory. This is precisely why EMBL is an ideal place to help lay the groundwork for finding solutions to global challenges.

How did financial support from the community help to launch ERI?

Part of the initial support came from the Friends of EMBL: a community of individuals and businesses who support EMBL’s work with annual donations. This enabled us to start three exciting ERI catalyst projects at EMBL, each of which reflects the ERI spirit. Our work wouldn’t have been possible without the enthusiasm and drive of Niki Pham, our ERI Project Officer, who suggested the idea of launching a call for catalyst projects.

How can others get involved to support ERI?

The catalyst projects are a great example of what a team of scientists can do and what the community can achieve together – no contribution is too small to make a difference. We invite people to engage with us and learn about what we’re doing, maybe give a small gift if that is possible, and help to spread the word and grow the community supporting environmental research at EMBL. With additional philanthropic engagement, we can fund more projects like the catalyst projects and expand even further to create new groups at EMBL delivering molecular environmental research.

What’s next for ERI?

First, I’m curious to find out what these catalyst projects will deliver. Second, we’re in conversations with major companies directly involved in research on climate change and carbon capture and storage. Hopefully, that will soon develop into meaningful collaborations between EMBL scientists and industry. Third, we will focus on reaching out to philanthropists, foundations, and corporations to fundraise for the grand ERI vision, which is to fully fund new EMBL research groups that contribute to EMBL’s new scientific directions and pave the way to solving environmental challenges.

ERI catalyst projects

Fighting pesticide pollution with microbes

Zimmermann Group, EMBL Heidelberg

Pesticides used in agriculture are a major threat for soil and water ecosystems. It’s still not well understood which microbes can break down pesticides and how. This project will develop novel approaches to answer these questions and will help to identify ways to better monitor the environment for pesticide contamination, to remove pesticides from the environment, and to design greener chemicals.

Tackling nanoplastic pollution

Svergun Group, EMBL Hamburg

Eight million tonnes of plastic waste end up in the oceans each year, eventually breaking down into tiny particles called microplastics and nanoplastics, which can cause serious problems for animals, humans, and ecosystems. However, the precise impacts of nanoplastics remain largely unexplored. EMBL scientists in Hamburg will combine advanced X-ray technology and biophysical techniques to better understand the links between nanoplastics and their impacts.

Cleaning wastewater polluted by artificial hormones

Zimmermann Group, EMBL Heidelberg

The daily use of pharmaceuticals introduces a high load of artificial hormones into wastewater and the environment, which is harmful to fish and local ecosystems. It’s currently a major challenge to detect and identify these hormones. EMBL will develop a new approach, combining computer simulations and mass spectrometry, to improve detection and identification. This may help the search for efficient ways to remove artificial hormones from the environment.

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