Research Centre Spotlight: Centre for Research in Biosciences (CRIB)

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Centre for Research in Biosciences (CRIB) conducts research within the Faculty of Health and Applied Sciences, with over 60 academics, 20-40 PhD students at any one time. CRIB has a thriving research community with extensive collaborations across UWE and with national and international partners. We have a vibrant virtual research seminar programme with speakers from all over the world.

CRIB has the following five broad research themes:

  1. Bioscience for Health
  2. Biosensing, Forensic and Analytical Sciences
  3. Bioscience for Sustainable Agriculture, Food and Water
  4. Environmental, Ecological and Conservation Sciences
  5. Interdisciplinary and education research

The following exciting projects showcase our work related to Sustainability and Climate Change.

CASE 1: SUSTAINABLE FOOD PRODUCTION

Our food systems are currently experiencing multiple threats and require new research and innovation to achieve biodiversity and net zero targets, as well as health and wellbeing and accessibility for all. Below are some examples of the exciting research and innovation taking place in CRIB to improve sustainable and healthy diets, reduce food waste and improve farmers’ livelihoods in the UK and internationally.

1.1 Making healthy and sustainable food accessible for all (Angelina Sanderson Bellamy)

Data collected during the UKRI-funded TGRAINS project has demonstrated the role that community-supported agriculture (CSA) vegetable box schemes have in improving both the health and sustainability of household diets. ‘CSA diets’, compared to control group diets, are higher in vegetables and legumes and lower in meats, sugar and saturated fats, with 28% lower CO2 emissions.

Our results also confirm previous results that show CSA households tend to have higher income than the UK national average, with higher socio-economic class. This shows that some in British society are willing and able to make dietary changes that are necessary to improve health, environmental outcomes, and reach the UK’s 2050 carbon emission targets, but that income and socio-economic status are a barrier to participation. 

This leads us to ask if similar outcomes can be achieved with food insecure households? What additional barriers do food insecure households face and how can we make fresh, locally grown vegetables accessible to everyone? We are also working with farm partners to test solidarity models, so that they can make vegetables available to all, regardless of income. We seek to generate impact by exploring whether food insecure households make dietary changes after joining a CSA and enabling a broader demographic to access the benefits of a ‘CSA diet’, thereby improving environmental and health impacts. 

The TGRAINS Accessible Veg project recently hosted visits from Jane Hutt, the Welsh minister of Social Justice, and Lesly Griffiths, the Welsh Minister of Rural Affairs and Environment regarding evidence related to achieving sustainable diets.

Dr Sanderson Bellamy was interviewed on Farming Today on BBC Radio 4

  1. 2 Reducing deforestation and improving livelihoods for Cacao producers in Africa (Joel Allainguillaume, Andy Wetten, Jackie Barnett, Richard Luxton)

Deforestation is a major issue in West Africa with a significant portion due to cocoa farming. To exacerbate the situation, the Cacao Swollen Shoot Virus (CSSV) threatens the livelihoods of cocoa farmers with up to 15% reduction in production leading to further deforestation as new areas for plantations are required. At UWE, we have been studying CSSV to help resolve its impact in West Africa, which produces nearly two-thirds of the world’s supply of cocoa.

Some of the most exciting research we have produced is the development of a biosensor that detects CSSV before any symptoms appear in affected plants1. In parallel with this work, we are also developing a traceability strategy for cacao products which will help strengthen supply chain mapping and prevent the sale of cacao grown illegally in protected forest areas2.

This work has been conducted in collaboration with a range of external partners and collaborators from European governmental institutes (CIRAD) and West African institutes (Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana, ICRAF) with internal partners from the Institute of Bio-Sensing Technology, with funding provided by the UK government (Innovate UK) and the cocoa industry (Mars Wrigley, European Cocoa Association (ECA), Cocoa Research UK).

1: https://uwe-repository.worktribe.com/output/7440964;

2: https://doi.org/10.1108/SCM-11-2020-0583

Photo: (a) Cocoa is one of the most valuable sources of income for smallholder farmers in West Africa.

Photo: b) The most damaging viral disease affecting the West African cacao crop is spread by mealybug scale insects.

  1. 3 Improving public health by reducing foodborne diseases and improving the sustainability of the food supply chain (Alexandros Stratakos)

The increasing global demand for food poses a serious challenge for humankind. International food trade is one of the most significant factors driving increases in foodborne diseases. Therefore, we urgently need to improve the safety and sustainability of food supply chains. Our research aims to develop cold plasma-based systems and strategies, which are able to rapidly and effectively eliminate risks to human health that can enter the food chain at any stage from the farm to its preparation for consumption.

Plasma is considered the 4th state of matter, with examples including the northern lights, lightening and solar winds. In the lab, we produce cold plasma by excitation of gas molecules using electrical discharges. Cold plasma is an environmentally friendly technology and our research shows that cold plasma eliminates pathogens on meat, vegetables, food contact surfaces and even skin. The use of cold plasma for decontamination of food processing, manufacturing and preparation areas can remove important microbiological and chemical contaminants, which will increase the shelf life of food, thereby reducing food waste, as well as improve safety. This can improve public health by reducing foodborne diseases and improving the sustainability of the food supply chain. 

Our growing research team works together with academic and industrial collaborators in the UK (e.g. Queen’s University Belfast, University of Central Lancashire, Ulster University) and internationally (e.g. Ireland, Germany, Greece, Spain) to translate this our research to real life applications that benefit industry, public bodies, authorities and consumers.

Photo: Cold atmospheric plasma treatment of food (UWE lab)

1.4 Using volatile sensing to reduce food waste in the supply chain (Barbara dos Santos Correia, Darren Reynolds and Robin Thorn)

Food waste is a huge global issue with serious implications for climate change – a third of all global food production is never consumed, contributing 8-10% of total man-made greenhouse gas emissions. The potato is the leading non-grain commodity in the global food system, but also the number one wasted food in UK households (WRAP).

To reduce waste, industry needs to embrace smarter and more sustainable production methods. The Future Leaders Fellowship “TuberSense – Early detection of potato diseases through volatile sensing to reduce food waste in the supply chain”, awarded and funded by UKRI to Dr Barbara dos Santos Correia and B-hive Innovations Ltd, aims to identify disruptive diseases and defects that affect potato production and storage across the UK and create innovative tools based on volatile sensing to prevent agri-food waste.

The Fellowship is further supported by Prof James A. Covington at the University of Warwick, Dr Robert Hancock (James Hutton Institute) and Dr David Nelson (Branston Ltd).


Photo: Volatile sensors (top of image) will be developed that detect the disease state of potatoes in the field, in the store and/or packaged for sale.

CASE 2: WATER AND MICROPLASTIC

2.1 Clean water for all (Darren Reynolds, Robin Thorn, Gillian Clayton, Bethany Fox )

Globally, almost 2 billion people do not have access to safely managed drinking water, and almost 1 million people per year die as a result of preventable diarrhoeal diseases contracted from the consumption of biologically contaminated waters (WHO & UNICEF, 2021).

For the past 10 years, UWE has designed, tested, developed and produced a community scale drinking water treatment platform in collaboration with Portsmouth Aviation. The system utilises electrochemically generated hypochlorous acid which has enhanced antimicrobial and anti-biofilm activity, compared to commonly used sodium hypochlorite (Clayton, Thorn and Reynolds, 2021). The system has been continuously running on UWE’s Frenchay Campus since November 2019 and has produced over 3 million litres of UK standard drinking water.


Photo: Clean water for all; the community scale drinking water treatment platform is currently undergoing ongoing field trials at UWE Bristol.

Clayton, G.E., Thorn, R.M.S. and Reynolds, D.M. (2021) The efficacy of chlorine-based disinfectants against planktonic and biofilm bacteria for decentralised point-of-use drinking water. npj Clean Water. 4  (1), . doi:10.1038/s41545-021-00139-w.

WHO & UNICEF (2021) Progress on drinking water, sanitation and hygiene in households 2000-2020: Five years into the SDGs.

2.2 Unearthing the water crisis in the River Ganges (Bethany Fox, Darren Reynolds, Robin Thorn)

Since 2018, UWE Bristol has led an Indo-UK Water Quality project, Water Quality – TEST, involving many project partners including NGOs, industry and academic institutes in both the UK and India.

At its core this project has focused on the development and deployment of technologies for monitoring biological water quality and the provision of biologically-safe drinking water.  With other UK-India water quality projects, a large collaborative study was undertaken to monitor water pollution along >2,500 km of the Ganges River and its major tributaries.

This study was carried out over a three-week period in November 2019 by three teams of more than 30 international researchers from 10 institutions. Alongside the 80+ water quality parameters assessed at 81 locations along the river, microplastics in the water and river sediments were also assessed. This microplastics research was presented in the Green Zone at COP26 on the COP-Universities and UKRI stands.

Photo: The reality of the water crisis in the Gangetic basin; flushing of a street side-drain into the River Ganges, carrying plastic bottles and other waste directly into the river.
Picture taken November 2019.

2.3 Airborne microplastics: an unquantified risk (Stephanie Sargeant, Darren Reynolds)

Researchers at UWE Bristol have been investigating the potential health implications of airborne microplastics since 2018. Although significant work has been done to understand the presence of microplastics in the environment, much of this work has focused on the marine environment, which is now well established. However, there is a significant knowledge gap around airborne microplastics and their potential health implications remain largely unknown.

Initial work started with developing methods to recover, identify and characterise microplastic particles from routine air quality monitoring stations. This analysis technique allowed researchers to successfully sample airborne particles less than 10µm in size, characterise the polymer types and has the potential to be applied to other routine air quality monitoring filters.

Photo A: Air quality β-attenuation monitoring [BAM] filters. B: Sample of fishing rope. C: Single fibre of fishing rope under the Micro-RAMAN.

Following this work, researchers in the Biospheric Microplastics Research Cluster (BMRC), at UWE Bristol, are working to address critical gaps in the microplastic research landscape, notably the association between environmental exposure to microplastics through source, pathway, receptor relationships, and their potential to cause harm.

The BMRC brings together expertise from multiple disciplines across UWE Bristol, all of which play a crucial role in understanding the impact of microplastics on human and ecosystem health, expanding research excellence and enhancing teaching across the university landscape. Through understanding the human and ecosystem health implications of plastics, we believe there is an opportunity to contribute to their redesign, reuse and replacement throughout society.

CASE 3: CONSERVATION

3.1 Landscape level approaches to the conservation of bats in the UK (Emma Stone and Paul Lintott)

Dr Emma Stone and Dr Paul Lintott lead the very active Bat Conservation Research Lab in CRIB and work with a range of stakeholders to produce evidence based solutions for conservation management of bats. Bats (Chiroptera) make an important contribution to our biodiversity, accounting for one third of all UK mammals, and perform important ecosystem services such as insect pest control, pollination and seed dispersal.

Bats are reliant on healthy diverse habitats to survive, and historic declines mean that bats and their roosts are now legally protected in the UK. Urbanisation and development are one of the biggest threats to bats and their habitats and have detrimental impacts on bats through habitat loss, anthropogenic noise and artificial illumination. We are working in close collaboration with a range of partners across South West England to understand the impacts of such drivers on bats and provide evidence based conservation strategies to mitigate impacts and improve legislation.

Map of mean nightly bat activity recorded at acoustic study sites in North Somerset in 2020

With North Somerset Council and Natural England we are conducting applied research which aims to improve regulatory frameworks to deliver better conservation outcomes for bats. We are using an integrated approach combining acoustic surveys, GPS and radio-tracking of bats, ecological niche and landscape connectivity modelling to identify environmental factors that limit the distribution of threatened bat species (Rhinolophus hipposideros, and R. ferrumequinum). We create cutting edge landscape network maps from aerial photographs and synthetic aperture radar imagery which allow us to predict the impacts of development on bats at a county scale.

We run a country wide citizen science project “North Somerset Bat Survey” which collects long term bat acoustic and distribution data through public engagement. These data are then shared with North Somerset Council and used in the mapping processes to inform planning decisions at a county level.

Volunteers sign up to take part on our website where they book an ultrasonic bat detector and place it in nearby habitat to record bat calls for six nights. Volunteers upload bat acoustic data to the online British Trust for Ornithology Pipeline which uses a cutting-edge algorithm to automatically identify the bat species present. Between Sept and Oct 2021 we surveyed 83 1km squares and 26,508 identified recordings of which 10,391 were bat recordings comprising 14 species.

Experimental lighting study showing LED lights installed along a river in North Somerset to test impacts on riparian bats.

Our recent work involves conducting field experiments to understand the impacts of artificial lighting on bats along waterways. By installing temporary streetlights in a controlled experiment we were able to show that all night LED lights reduce the ability of bats to forage along rivers, which can have significant effects on bat populations, especially those that rely on aquatic insects along waterways for feeding. Future work will build on our findings to develop strategies to mitigate impacts of lighting and developments on bats. Watch this space!

3.2 Conservation of gorillas in Equatorial Guinea (David Fernández)

Since 2018, Dr David Fernández has worked with Dr Gráinne McCabe, from the Bristol Zoological Society (BZS), and with researchers from the Equatoguinean Institute for Forestry Development, to run a joint conservation programme focused on the Critically Endangered Western Lowland Gorilla and other large mammals in Monte Alén National Park, Equatorial Guinea.

Although Monte Alén has been identified as a priority area for wildlife conservation in Central Africa, hunting, income inequality and limited institutional capacity threaten the protection of this unique ecosystem.

Since its inception, the project has raised over $117,000 from National Geographic, the Arcus Foundation, and the Elephant Crisis Fund.

In 2020, we deployed an array of camera-traps and acoustic sensors for the long-term monitoring of large mammals and hunting in the Park. While this work was disrupted due to COVID-19, we have already found evidence that despite hunting being widespread, the gorillas remain in the area and the population is still reproducing, and are currently analysing acoustic data to quantify hunting and determine spatio-temporal factors affecting this activity. We are also working with local communities to mitigate crop-foraging, which threatens human-wildlife co-existence and has led to at least 19 retaliatory killings of Critically Endangered forest elephants since 2019. As such, in January 2022 we will initiate a study to test the efficacy of different humane strategies to mitigate elephant crop-foraging and hence reduce farmers’ economic and crop losses.

Recently the programme team has expanded with the addition of Drs Aimee Oxley and Edward Wright (BZS), and Mr Juan Cruz Ondo Nze Avomo, Field Manager. Over the next five years, we plan to expand our work to understand the socioeconomic drivers of natural resource use, implement alternative livelihood projects with local communities, and continue developing national capacity for biodiversity monitoring and evidence-based wildlife conservation.

3.3 Developing environmental DNA (eDNA) technologies (Mark Steer, Stephanie Sargeant, Angeliki Savvantoglou, Buffy Smith)

Photo: What lies beneath? eDNA can help to uncover the secrets of life underwater by identifying the DNA left behind by animals living in rivers, lakes and sea.

The eDNA partnership at UWE works with a range of partners to develop environmental DNA survey techniques which extract and identify the DNA left behind by animals in their environment. Our projects have encompassed creating methods to survey both the European Eel and the invasive parasite which may be an important factor in the eels’ dramatic population declines (partnership with Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust). Our aquatic work now extends to collaborations with Bristol Zoological Gardens, the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research and Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation, carrying out surveys for critically endangered fish and bivalves in the Mediterranean Basin. We are also at the early stages of a collaboration to create an eDNA method to search for Europe’s rarest fish, the Asprete, in the mountain streams of Romania.

Environmental DNA, however, is not solely recovered from water. Pioneering work carried out by PhD students Angeliki Savvantoglou and Buffy Smith has shown that mammal DNA can be recovered from the intestinal tracts of dung flies.

We have successfully demonstrated the use of the method to map the occurrence of bears in Greece and assess the impact of habitat fragmentation on lemurs in Madagascar, work which will help to inform habitat protection and restoration plans in both countries. This work is carried out in collaboration with in-country partners Callisto and Sadabe.

Our latest venture is really exciting – extracting DNA directly from the air, a project we’re carrying out with in partnership with the WrEN project. It’s a little early to report on our results, but the initial findings are promising.

The development of these survey techniques provides a highly sensitive and non-invasive method which will allow us to carry out species surveys rapidly and accurately, which is especially useful for species which are hard to spot or identify in the field. eDNA provides a powerful complementary technique for assessing the distribution of species across many different habitats.

3.4 Assessing the involvement and risk of bacteria to oak and other broadleaf tree hosts (Carrie Brady)

Dr Brady is a bacterial taxonomist in CRIB, working in collaboration with Forest Research on a multimillion pound BBSRC-funded grant to limit the spread of pathogenic bacteria that are damaging and causing the death of many native British oak trees. Native oak species are currently under threat from Acute Oak Decline (AOD), a serious disease affecting mature trees that has spread throughout the south east and midlands of Britain. A polymicrobial complex has been identified as the cause of the bleeding lesions typical of the decline with two bacterial species, Brenneria goodwinii and Gibbsiella quercinecans, responsible for the necrosis of the inner bark. We isolated, identified and classified these two new bacterial species just over a decade ago. The research into AOD at UWE centres around the classification, identification and detection of bacteria associated with the decline.

Photo: Mature Quercus robur (pedunculate oak) displaying symptoms of acute oak decline with several bleeds visible on the trunk.

Since joining UWE Bristol in 2011, we have described two novel genera and 11 novel species of bacteria isolated from oak displaying symptoms of AOD. We also develop molecular screening methods to detect the most commonly isolated bacteria from diseased tissue, examine possible synergistic relationships between the bacteria and try to determine routes of infection from possible reservoirs such as rhizosphere soil.

Our research has recently expanded into screening bleeding cankers of other broadleaf hosts such as lime, beech, elm and birch to determine if the AOD bacteria are present on hosts other than oak. Preliminary results from field trips in Gloucestershire and Wiltshire indicate a novel Brenneria species may be involved in necrosis of lime with symptoms of bleeding cankers along with the AOD-associated bacteria. This opens several exciting avenues of future research with the possibility of another polymicrobial disease on a broadleaf host, similar to the complex responsible for AOD.

Photo: Bleeding symptoms on mature Tilia x europaea (common lime).
Photo: Removing bleeding outer bark using chisel and mallet.

Photo: Necrotic lesion on inner bark beneath bleeding outer bark of Tilia hybrid.

CASE 4: CARBON CAPTURE VIA REWILDING

4.1 Carbon capture via rewilding (Pete Maxfield; Sam Bonnett; Adrian Crew; Mark Steer)

Landscape-scale ecosystem restoration, or ‘Rewilding’, is being deployed globally to enhance biodiversity and contribute to climate change mitigation by increasing carbon storage and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Soils play a key role in long-term global carbon storage with twice as much carbon stored in soil compared to the atmosphere and three times more compared to vegetation. There is considerable commercial interest in the development of carbon credit schemes which allow individuals and companies to invest in projects around the world in order to balance carbon footprints, but these need rigorous monitoring to ensure that they deliver the expected benefits. Researchers in CRIB are leading the development of methods for evaluation and validation of carbon storage in rewilded ecosystems.

A key barrier to implementing programmes to increase soil organic carbon (SOC) at large scale is that SOC cannot be easily measured and monitored over the short-term. Current valuation and validation standards for rewilding and/or carbon offsetting projects are dependent on estimated values that may or may not be validated for specific ecosystems and so there is a requirement for empirical evaluation of the spatial and temporal variation of soil carbon and GHG flux within rewilded ecosystems for future method developments. This is particularly important for small and mid-sized rewilding projects (< 500 acres) which make up the majority of rewilding projects in England but receive very little academic interest.

Photo: Measuring greenhouse gas emissions in real time at Honeygar

We are using state of the art in-field and laboratory techniques to measure the impact of ecosystem restoration on soil carbon dynamics at a number of important rewilding sites including Honeygar, the Somerset Wildlife Trust’s £3m peatland restoration initiative in the internationally important Somerset Levels and Moors landscape, and the community-led rewilding project, Wild Woodbury, which extends 170 hectares across the south Dorset landscape.

We are also working with the Wild Carbon Fund to develop an over-arching framework for monitoring carbon storage and sequestration on rewilding sites which will provide landowners with a robust carbon monitoring framework.

Our work in Somerset is supporting the government’s Lowland Peatland Taskforce in developing its long-term strategic goals for managing carbon stocks in the UK’s lowland peatlands.

Image: Engaging with local communities with vitally important to develop understanding for how changing the land use in agricultural systems can provide both environmental and economic benefits.