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ECOSERV Report Summary

Project ID: 23469
Funded under: FP6-MOBILITY
Country: United Kingdom

Final Activity Report Summary - ECOSERV (Designed Ecosystem Services for Biological Treatment)

Present day biological treatment systems have been developed primarily through empirical, incremental refinements of previously designed systems. This approach has delivered relatively effective processes that often work, but the law of diminishing returns now governs the rate of process development. The primary goal of ECOSERV was to free biological process design from the limitations of empiricism and provide fundamental principles founded in ecological theory to enable development of more reliable and predictable biological treatments systems.

This project implemented this vision by combining mathematical modelling, state-of-the-art measurement technologies, and principles from theoretical ecology through the integrated activity of a multi-disciplinary and multi-national team of expert researchers. The team included Marie Curie researchers from seven different countries and included engineers, molecular biologists, ecologists, and mathematicians to address four broad domains pertinent to environmental engineering. The primary domains included: stability of small, decentralised wastewater treatments facilities; biofilm and floc development; nutrient removal and bulking and foaming; and fate of low-level bioactive compounds.

The project was highly successful both technically and in professional training of the research team. Sixty-four peer-reviewed manuscripts are already in print and many more are under review or in preparation; five major workshops were held; and numerous international exchanges and collaborations were sustained involving colleagues around the world. Two of the ECOSERV MC researchers have been retained at Newcastle University, two have obtained outside faculty positions; two are post-doc doctoral researchers at other universities, and one is working in industry on topics directly related to ECOSERV studies.

Research success was obtained under all four technical domains. Considerable work on the effect of relative scale was performed on treatment and other environmental systems, especially studies examining relationships between reactions at the microbial scale to system behaviour at larger scales. For example, nitrification, a critical biological-catalysed reaction in waste treatment and environmental systems, was examined both using mathematical and experimental approaches, and results showed resource-ratio theory and complexity theory could help explain anecdotal instability frequently seen in the process. Whereas, new mathematical models were developed from fundamental principles to describe how and why floc form, and how such formation reactions influence biofilm dynamics on a general level. The models were then combined with theories from macroecology to develop larger predictive tools for describing biodiversity in waste treatment and environmental systems. Considerable work was done related to nutrients, both in treatment processes but also in the natural environment, especially studies coupling nitrification, denitrification and photosynthesis in aquatic systems and the influence of nutrient supply on biofuels. For example, one ECOSERV project showed that in situ denitrification, a key reaction for nitrogen destruction in nature, was dependent on ecological balances between anaerobic, aerobic and phototrophic bacteria. This general line of study led to studies on the thermodynamics of methanogenesis and denitrification relative to anaerobic digestion and reductive dechlorination, which are key biotechnical processes for solids destruction in domestic and industrial waste treatment, and also groundwater and soil remediation, respectively.

Finally, great success was achieved in studies of the fate and impact of low-level bioactive compounds, including seminal work on relationships between historic industrial pollution and the evolution in mass-scale increases in antibiotic resistance in nature. This work was awarded runner-up for science in environmental research in 2009 by the American Chemical Society. Across all the four domains, ecological theory was extended to microbial systems answering specific and general questions, and various review articles were published by ECOSERV team members.


Ian McCutcheon HEAD, (Professor of Environmental Microbiology)
Tel.: +44-191-246-4806
Fax: +44-191-222-5322
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