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Researcher studies the effect of algae to remove hydrocarbons from the sea

·                     With the Project “Accumulation and degradation of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in sea algae”, Dr Alberto González Figueroa, a PhD in Biotechnology and researcher at the Faculty of Chemistry and Biology of Universidad de Santiago, is starting a new research line on bioremediation in marine systems.


Oils spills are very common in coastal waters of central Chile and they have caused an important increase in polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs are mutagenic and carcinogenic compounds which are harmful to the health of people who live by the coast.

For this reason, Dr Alberto González got interested in using sea algae for bioremediation purposes in the Chilean coastal waters. With the funds that he was awarded by CONICYT (2017) and the support of the Laboratory of Marine Biotechnology of Universidad de Santiago, he will develop a new research line with the project called “Accumulation and degradation of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in sea algae.”

The project could improve human health and the economy of coastal towns, because when toxic compounds are removed from these areas, human development is promoted, and damaged coastal areas and species are recovered.

Dr González studied Biochemistry and completed a Biotechnology PhD program at Universidad de Santiago. Then he continued there as a postdoc. It was then when he started to conduct different studies related to algae. In his last project, he studied the Ectocarpus siliculosus, a filamentous brown microalga. This led him to develop the study that he will conduct now of the use of algae to bioremediate national coastal waters affected by oil spills, like the area of Quintero, which has been badly polluted by refineries.

An encouraging project

After testing different sea algae of the coastal waters of central Chile and exposing them to different doses of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons present in oil and in the incomplete burning of organic matter, Dr González selected for his study the green macroalga Ulva Lactuca due to its large size and its geographical distribution in many regions of the country.

The first stage of the study will be focused on examining the accumulation and degradation mechanisms of PAHs in the macroalga to evaluate its survival response and analyze the presence of metabolic evidence in order to determine if it is able to absorb PAHs and transform them into innocuous compounds.

Later on, the researcher will evaluate what enzymes and proteins take part in the degradation of hydrocarbons and seek for the genes than turn on or off to respond to the breakdown of hydrocarbons.

The researcher says that the study is encouraging because, in the long term, it could result in a system to remove PAHs from polluted coastal waters. In the future, he expects to start new projects in the coastal areas and transfer the new knowledge from the laboratories of Universidad de Santiago to the community.

Translated by Marcela Contreras

Soledad Fuentes Mansilla