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© M. Carrouée

Biological and ecological responses to contaminants of the aquatic environment

In summary

In a word

  • 65 permanent staff including 49 researchers, engineers and technicians
  • 50 top-ranking publications per year on average
  • 2 patents
  • 1 incubated company : BiomAE

Three lines of scientific reasearch

  • Measurement of chemical contamination and its dynamics
  • Bioavailability, toxic potential and transfer into the biota
  • Measurement of biological responses and vulnerability to
    chemical pressures

Editorial : Aquatic life and chemical contamination

Jean-Michel Roger, Directeur-adjoint scientifique de INSPIREAquatic environments are threatened by the negative impacts of discharges emitted by industrial, agricultural and urban activities. Such discharges, whether diffuse or from on-point sources, bring various pollutants (pesticides, heavy metals, hygiene and healthcare products, medication, etc.). Because it is not possible to manage and treat them comprehensively, they end up in rivers and undermine the balance of their ecosystems. To counteract this danger, the public authorities have issued regulations of which the most significant is undoubtedly the European Water framework directive (WFD), designed to achieve a good water status by 2015. But what is a "good status"?
In other words, how is the ecological status of water bodies to be evaluated? The scientists working on the BELCA research topic (Biological and ecological responses to contaminants of the aquatic environment) are attempting to identify, understand and predict biological and ecological disturbances caused in the aquatic environment by chemical contamination resulting from human activities.

This work incorporates many disciplines, including chemistry, biology, ecotoxicology, ecology, among others, with the common theme of public management assistance in the implementation of the WFD and support for the territorial communities in water resources management. Owing to the complexity of the environments and the diversity of the substances, "custom-made" analysis tools have been developed in the Irstea laboratories, which include bioindicators and biomarkers based on commonly found aquatic species including insects, molluscs and crustaceans.

These batteries of markers are used in the laboratory and in the field to study the effects of contamination and to monitor the quality of the aquatic environments. However, the submerged passive samplers offer a longer term followup by "trapping" the pollutants, even in very low concentrations. Irstea researchers are now turning to new challenges: development of molecular cellular and behavioural biomarkers, sampling and analysis of new substances in the aquatic environments (perfluorinated compounds, mercury, arsenic), evaluation of the impact of multiple stress elements on the biological response, understanding of the vulnerability of aquatic organisms and communities, etc.

Selected research projects

Detecting micropollutants in rivers

Ecotoxicology laboratory


The ecotoxicomix network


COTE, cluster of excellence

Business creation

A start-up made in Irstea

A dozen years of research focused on a small shrimp: a promising cocktail for BIOMÆ, a start-up created by Irstea, specializing in the biomonitoring of aquatic environments.

It all began in 2003. Believing that the samples analysed in the laboratory offer an incomplete picture of water quality, particularly in terms of the bioaccumulation and bioavailability of contaminants, Irstea researchers developed a new method of active biomonitoring. This method is based on the transplantation in situ of a sentinel species of shrimp, the gammarid, and on the use of biomarkers of chemical contamination and toxicity. Soon sought after for their analyses, in 2012 the team turned to technology transfer as its focus. Drawn to the idea, a young doctoral candidate of an entrepreneurial turn of mind became fully committed to this project, which, the following year, won the OSEO Emergence Award. After a few more steps, supported by Irstea and a Lyon incubator and the start-up BIOMÆ was finally born in 2014. In addition to the monitoring tool developed by Irstea, which holds the licence, BIOMÆ also has access to the data repository acquired by the Institute in the course of experiments conducted on more than 180 sites in France. A precious legacy which enables it to interpret the results of the trials and thereby make a very detailed diagnosis of the quality of waterways.

Learn more about BiomAE

Scientific equipments

Pollutants under control
Medications, pesticides, metals, nitrogen and phosphorous compounds… All substances that Irstea researchers track in their laboratories.
Set up in Lyon, the aquatic environment chemistry laboratory is studying exposure to pollutants in both the rural and urban areas. It is using in particular passive samplers which accumulate the contaminants and make it possible to
determine the average concentrations over periods ranging from a few days to several weeks. It also employs state of-the-art analysis techniques such as inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry for the identification of metals, or gas or liquid chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry for organic pollutants. Irstea researchers are thus able to determine the level of contaminants present in concentrations of less than a nanogram (10-9 gram per litre), and actually close to a picogram (10-12 gram per litre)!

The water chemistry laboratory in Bordeaux is engaged on similar issues; it focuses more specifically on the passive sampling of pesticides and nutrients, such as nitrates or phosphates, to which the aquatic plants are exposed (diatoms, phytoplankton and macrophytes).