Fundamental research for global challenges

Fundamental research for global challenges

Hold onto your hats! Here’s a topic to get your heart racing: the redox transformations of natural organic matter. Not racing? Bear with me, it soon will be.

In this four-year Australian Research Council Discovery Project, (DP150102248) Professor David Waite and his BioGEMS team have sent themselves a critical mission: to understand how organic matter in water affects the transformations of key elements like iron and copper and, in turn, how these metals affect the organic matter.

Professor Waite reveals why this fundamental research extends into so many different disciplines and how it could even be key to the survival of the human race over the next century.

This topic seems a little esoteric. Can you explain what your research is about?

We’re undertaking fundamental research that not only tells us how the world works, but has a number of very big, global implications. All around us, water contains organic matter. This goopy material comes from trees, plants and dead organisms. It’s quite ill-defined but has a big impact on the way the water behaves through different ‘redox transformations’.

Redox (short for reduction–oxidation reaction) is a chemical reaction that happens where the oxidation states of atoms are changed, and we have a team of PhD candidates and professional researchers looking at the organic compounds in water, exploring their nature and investigating how they interact with a variety of metals.

What kind of global implications could this research have?

Here’s a good example. One of the key elements we are looking at is iron. Iron is essential for all living things to survive and we know that the availability of iron in our oceans controls the growth of algae. Algae is the largest controller of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the Earth’s atmosphere as these organisms transform CO2 into living matter via photosynthesis; so, theoretically, it follows that if we deliberately increase the iron supply into the World’s oceans we might have a solution to achieving CO2 balance and be able to mitigate global climate change.

Now, this sort of engineered approach has currently been deemed way too risky to attempt - because we don’t understand enough about the biogeochemical changes that might occur, we might inadvertently set off the next ice age! - so that’s why this underpinning research is globally important. It may provide a solution to our survival in 100 years’ time.

Do you have another example?

Our research could also help save the Great Barrier Reef. The Reef is currently dying. Why is that? Well, we’re not quite sure. Some say it’s temperature, but that may only be part of the story. We suspect it’s also down to the way we manage our land, our coasts and the type of runoff that goes into the ocean.

This runoff contains organic complexes - organic matter bound to elements like iron. Once in the ocean with the sun shining on them, we think they could be transforming into oxidants which are harmful to the Reef. If we can find and prove this link through our research, then we can manage our coastlines better. There is a direct link between increasing our understanding and implications for coastal management.

Does this research also have implications for the work you’re doing in neurological disorders?

Absolutely. The concepts of nutrient supply and oxidant generation are key to our work in mitigating Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s which are linked by a common underpinning metal-organic chemistry. One of the key causes of Parkinson’s disease is the formation of what’s called neuromelanin in the brain. We’re taking our knowledge of biomolecules to understand the key factors controlling formation of this substance. We can also use it to look at how iron transforms from ferritin, a storage molecule, to iron(III)oxide; which is what happens in the human body on ageing.

This underpinning research obviously throws up some big ideas with multidisciplinary potential. How do you decide which ideas to pursue?

I pursue ideas where I can see there is an important knowledge gap where we can do great science but is also in an area where there is a great application or implication. So, it’s those two drivers.

I also tend to link with people who are specialists. For example, we’re about to apply for funding to work on in a project in relation to coal dust because there is a sudden resurgence of black lung disease in Queensland. I’m not a specialist in coal dust or coal mining, but I had an idea, based on the literature, that the transformation of iron minerals was probably causing these problems, so I linked up with a mine specialist who said, “I think that’s exactly right, it would be great to work together on this”. This is a perfect example of using our fundamental, underpinning knowledge to help find a solution to an important real-world problem.