This year, again an ETE researcher won the NWO VENI grant of 250.000 euro. Two years after Annemiek ter Heijne’s successful application, Nora Sutton was awarded this prestigious grant for her project ‘Cleaning groundwater of organic micro-pollutants. Fundamental understanding of biodegradation.’ The grant offers a personal research budget for young researchers during a three-year period. This year, only fifteen percent of the applicants were successful. The jury classified Sutton as ‘an outstanding talent for academic research’ and her proposal as ‘adequate, effective and well thought through, with a high probability to achieve its goals.’
Traces of pesticides
Sutton designed her awarded studies as follow-up on her post-doc research at ETE. Her planned research involves the use of microorganisms to remove micro-pollutants, such as pesticides, from groundwater. In the Netherlands, a lot of these underground water bodies are used for drinking water production. ‘Due to infiltration of surface water, very low concentrations of different pesticides and their degradation products may enter groundwater’, Sutton explains. ‘As a result, more than a quarter of all groundwater reservoirs used for drinking water production contain traces of these pesticides.’ Thus, there is a need to remove these compounds to ensure sufficient quality of groundwater reservoirs. However, due to low pesticide concentrations, it is technically challenging to purify this water. Sutton’s idea is to use microorganisms to degrade these contaminants in the groundwater before they reach the consumer.
During her experiments, the scientist will focus on developing the groundwater system into a bioreactor able to degrade micro-pollutants. She will identify microorganisms that are involved in pesticide breakdown. In the field, contaminant presence and breakdown will be measured in contaminated groundwater. In laboratory experiments environmental conditions, such as dissolved organic carbon (DOC), will be manipulated to identify possible improvements of contaminant breakdown. ‘Our main aim is to increase our understanding of pesticide breakdown under natural conditions’, Sutton says. ‘We intend to apply our lab results in the field to improve contaminant breakdown at locations where this appears insufficient, for example by adding organic carbon or by adding microorganisms to the soil.’