‘In the 1980s more than 500 Irish rivers were pristine – now just 23 are’

24 Apr 2019

Konstantinos Gkrintzalis, assistant professor at the School of Biotechnology at DCU. Image: DCU

DCU biologist Konstantinos Gkrintzalis is trying to find ways to predict pollution in nature before it reaches dangerous levels.

With a master’s in biological technology and a PhD in biology and microbiology, Konstantinos Gkrintzalis has previously been a postdoctoral researcher at the Foundation of Research and Technology of Hellas, Greece; the Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium; and the University of Birmingham, UK.

He is now an assistant professor at the School of Biotechnology at Dublin City University (DCU) and was named as the highest award recipient in Science Foundation Ireland’s Starting Investigator Research Grant last January.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I guess, as far as I can remember myself, my research drive was forged mainly by my intention to pose questions out of my curiosity. As a kid, I remember always asking ‘why’ and ‘how’. After finding my path towards biosciences, I was more intrigued towards experimentation and posing tougher scientific questions.

My motivation shifted to not only the question, but how I could approach a matter scientifically to get an answer that would benefit humankind, advance science and promote education. Every day in our daily lives, we each find ourselves in situations where we should promote critical thinking, and this is what inspires me as a researcher to find better alternatives and solutions to the benefit of society and promoting research.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

With the continuous global increase of population and consumption of resources, there has been a significant impact to the environment due to human activities. Therefore, assessment of environmental exposure to toxic chemicals as well as their impact on biological systems is of significant importance.

The current approaches lack in prediction of pollution and provide minimal biological information for the mechanism of action of pollutants. Focusing in freshwater ecosystems, I approach this matter using high throughput (metabolomics) methods to better understand the impact of pollutants and novel materials (such as nanomaterials) using an aquatic organism – the waterflea (Daphnia magna) – as a bioindicator.

I collect ‘metabolic fingerprints’ from animals exposed to known pollutants and compare them with similar metabolic fingerprints from animals exposed to actual water samples, such as from rivers and lakes. With my research, I aim to provide means to study and predict pollution before it reaches precarious levels.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

In the 1980s more than 500 Irish river sites were of pristine quality – now there are just 23.

Presently, 15pc of Irish lakes are significantly affected by eutrophication and it is quite evident that we need to develop the molecular tools for safeguarding and monitoring the aquatic environment. It is my strong belief that we cannot allow to lose more time and harm the ecosystem to an irreversible state.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

My aim is to transform my science to the benefit of society. I would like to see through my research a revolution in ecotoxicology and risk assessment with a direct impact to pollution monitoring in freshwater ecosystems.

Ideally, I want to introduce novel sensitive metrics such as metabolic pathway perturbations to benefit society with a robust safeguarding of the aquatic environment. Perhaps as an ultimate target, I would hope to see in Ireland the manifestation of an institute in collaboration with industrial partners. This would include a focus on molecular approaches to safeguard the country’s water, guide legislation and develop novel sampling tools to assist water monitoring.

These tools could be used widely to evaluate water quality anywhere and provide a new quality check system.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

As an environmental researcher, I have to deal with adjusting myself to the system I study. In doing so, I have to adopt and consider all aspects in relation to experimentation so that I can achieve high-quality research standards.

Furthermore, as an academic, my role is to educate people, motivate them towards science and having an ecological thinking, and train them to become scientists achieving the maximum of their potential.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

I guess this comes to every scientific field. The emergence of new technology acts like a magnet to scientists creating new trends. I believe as researchers we need to keep to our courses, never fear innovation, and filter new technologies, using them with caution until we validate them thoroughly.

In my research specifically, approaches have been sometimes used wrongly by collecting vast amounts of data which tend to be rather ‘noisy’ than informative. This means the obvious: we need to assure each time we approach a question that we develop a correct experimental design, choose the necessary means, and gather the necessary and correct amount of data (and not just data) to process.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

I would hope in the next years our understanding for pollution in terms of biological mechanisms improves and provides a guide to legislation. At the moment, there are novel materials in use with several daily applications [and] the legislation over them remains inconclusive over their toxicity. Developing the tools that could effectively prove if something is toxic, and guide its use and decomposition, is crucial.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.