Capacity building of human and technological resources through the European projects EPIBOOST and FONDA

At the end of March, the 1st transversal skills training program took place in Aveiro, co-organized by four European ‘Twinning’ projects based at the University of Aveiro.

As part of the presentation of the projects based in the Center for Environmental and Marine Studies (CESAM), we interviewed the coordinators of two of those projects, EPIBOOST and FONDA. In this informal conversation, we discuss these European projects’ objectives and specific characteristics.

CESAM: What were the questions that you identified that drove the implementation of these projects?

Alexandra Monteiro (FONDA): There has been a need for some time to study in detail the issue of air pollution by nitrogen compounds (whether ammonia or nitrogen oxides) at the level of the atmosphere and at the level of deposition in ecosystems. Our research group works on air quality modelling, but the tools we use are not specific for this type of compound, okay? Therefore, there was a need to deepen our knowledge further, in terms of the tools that give us this ability to assess – what is happening in terms of these nitrogen compounds in the atmosphere and how much is deposited in ecosystems.

Joana Pereira (EPIBOOST): In our case, it started from a research interest that I already had – environmental epigenetics. (…) Environmental epigenetics is, if we want to simplify, everything that controls the expression of genes, but which is not inscribed in the genetic code and, therefore, ends up being the molecular starting point of organisms’ responses to environmental contamination.
(…) So it is an emerging area in assessing ecological risk, and even in the area of ??regulation, more and more work will be done in this area. Because in fact, they are the initiating events of the response of organisms, more than the gene expression itself, because they control the expression of the genes… and, therefore, they are more upstream in what is the response of the organisms to the contamination. And it was an area that was not very developed, although at CESAM, environmental risk assessment and ecotoxicology were quite developed and there was a lot of competence here in this area… we needed more training in molecular epigenetics.

CESAM: Who are the project partners and the funding agency? And what is the duration of both projects?

Alexandra Monteiro (FONDA): We have been working in this area for some time [air quality modelling], and we already know all the partners at the European level. The European ‘Twinning’ program was an opportunity (…) it is a European funding program to empower ‘low income’ countries and Portugal is still on that list, in fact, everyone is amazed at how Portugal still is, but the truth is that it is still (…) Our main partner and the reference at the European level is the TNO (independent scientific organisation), a research unit in the Netherlands, in Utrecht. And then we also have the University of Berlin because we have been working with them for many years; they were among the first to test these tools, and therefore it made sense, that our partners are the ones who developed the tools and the one who has a great deal of experience in terms of application of these tools. (…) Our project started two months ago and runs until February 2026

Joana Pereira (EPIBOOST): In our case, the partners are the University of Ghent, which was the partner with whom I already had professional collaborations, and the CSIC [Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas] in Barcelona, ??through two research institutes, the IDAEA [Institute of Environmental Assessment and Water Research] and the ICM [Institute of Marine Sciences], which have some researchers who work specifically in this area of ??epigenetics, especially with fish. And these organisms are very important because they end up being almost unavoidable models in the area of ??environmental assessment and also in aquaculture, for example (…) Our project started last October, lasts for three years, and ends in September 2025.

CESAM: What results are you trying to achieve?

Alexandra Monteiro (FONDA): Our objective is also to become a reference group in this area. It will no longer be just TNO having excellent knowledge in this area, it will be us too. And what does that mean? When there is a need to do work related to these topics, even for other countries or regions, we can do it. We will be able to integrate European consortia in this area, be contacted by other groups, and establish new collaborations, precisely because of this training. Because there are really few people in Europe working in this specific area (…) Throughout the project, there are work missions, where researchers from here go there [the Netherlands] and they come here too (…) But throughout the project, we are also doing research. In other words, we have this plan for training people, but we also want to do new things, which they [TNO and the University of Berlin] haven’t done yet, and that part was also one of the reasons that led them to accept being part of this project.

Joana Pereira (EPIBOOST): The idea is to learn from the knowledge these groups [UGhent and CSIC] already have: how they work and operate in this area. Whether from the point of view of technical protocols for epigenetic analysis or at the technical level of analyses, genetic sequencing… and in the related bioinformatics area, which is always a very important component in these projects that involve molecular techniques linked to ecotoxicology. (…) In terms of concrete results? We will have results that are achieved over time and others that will only be achieved at the end. We have to separate what are research outputs – because the project contains a research project – and what are training outputs, which are all training activities that we do (summer schools, advanced courses, etc.).
The main objective is to have a group of researchers who are much more qualified to carry out their own work later independently, be it their experimental designs or their analyses in the area of ??environmental epigenetics.

 CESAM: What is the relevance of these projects for society?

Alexandra Monteiro (FONDA): In the first place, we are trying to evaluate. And everything indicates that Portugal is a susceptible and critical area regarding this pollution [of the air through nitrogen compounds]. And why? It is related to the critical load… we may not even have as many emissions as other places, I mean, in fact, we have a high level of emissions, but even if we didn’t, the point is that our ecosystem is particularly sensitive. Therefore, it can withstand less. If, on the one hand, we have to consider the level of emissions that exist. On the other hand, we have to assess the ability of the ecosystem to resist without suffering damage, which is the so-called critical load. And our critical load is low, so it’s an added problem.

The European air quality directive is being revised, and ammonia has now been considered an emerging pollutant; that is, it is a pollutant that the European Union will force to be studied carefully. It is still not mandatory to measure, but from the moment they consider an emerging pollutant it will have to be [measured]. And why is this work so important? Because it is not mandatory to measure in all places, we do not know their levels. And how do we find out? We use these modelling tools!

Joana Pereira (EPIBOOST): In our case, it is sometimes difficult to convey the importance of our research work [Environmental Epigenetics]. But let’s think that doctors often tell us that, for example, children of smoking mothers or mothers who smoked during pregnancy, can have effects that can last into adulthood, and that even grandchildren can have effects from the fact that the mother has smoked during pregnancy (as a predisposition to certain diseases, etc.). We can see the importance of the area because all this is epigenetic.
All of this is a response to an exposure they had when they were in their mother’s womb, and it has nothing to do with changes in the genetic code, DNA, but with the mechanisms that control the expression of the genetic code.
(…) There is currently much evidence about epigenetic control in the area of ??human health and what we want to obtain is more and more evidence in terms of environmental health – what can we do to, for example, improve the processes for monitoring pollution and the effects of pollution on ecosystems and environmental health based on epigenetic changes in organisms. We are trying to transpose technologies that are already implemented in human health into the context of environmental assessment because life depends on ecosystem services. In order to preserve them, we have to know how to monitor them in the most reliable and comprehensive way possible.

You can learn more about the EPIBOOST project (Boosting excellence in environmental epigenetics) here or here and about the FONDA project (Fostering Nitrogen Deposition Assessment over Portugal) here