Press releases

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Goethe University PR & Communication Department 

Theodor-W.-Adorno Platz 1
60323 Frankfurt


Jan 24 2024

Results of a preclinical study by Goethe University Frankfurt offer hope for new treatment options in the medium term

mRNA therapeutic successfully combats ovarian cancer in mice

Ovarian cancer is often very aggressive and responds poorly to the therapies currently available. A recent study by Goethe University Frankfurt and University Hospital Frankfurt offers hope that this could change in the medium term. The researchers used an mRNA as a therapeutic. With its help, the tumor cells produced a protein again that prevents their own uncontrolled proliferation or induces cell death. The mRNA therapeutic successfully combated cancerous cells and tumors in vitro as well as metastases in mice.

FRANKFURT. Each year, several thousand women in Germany die from ovarian cancer. In many cases, the disease is only detected when it is very advanced and metastases have already formed – usually in the intestines, abdomen or lymph nodes. At such a late stage, only 20 to 30 percent of all those affected survive the next five years. “Unfortunately, this situation has hardly changed at all over the past two decades," says Professor Klaus Strebhardt, Director of the Department of Molecular Gynecology and Obstetrics at University Hospital Frankfurt.

96 percent of all ovarian cancer (high-grade) patients share the same clinical picture: The tumor suppressor gene p53 has mutated and is now non-functional. The gene contains the building instructions for an important protein that normally recognizes damage in the genetic material (DNA) of each cell. It then prevents these abnormal cells from proliferating and activates repair mechanisms that rectify the damage. If this fails, it induces cell death. “In this way, p53 is very effective in preventing carcinogenesis," explains Strebhardt. “But when it is mutated, this protective mechanism is eradicated."

If a cell wants to produce a certain protein, it first makes a transcript of the gene containing the building instructions for it. Such transcripts are called mRNAs. In women with ovarian cancer, the p53 mRNAs are just as defective as the gene from which they were copied. “We produced an mRNA in the laboratory that contained the blueprint for a normal, non-mutated p53 protein," says Dr. Monika Raab from the Department of Molecular Gynecology and Obstetrics, who conducted many of the key experiments in the study. “We packed it into small lipid vesicles, known as liposomes, and then tested them first in cultures of various human cancer cell lines. The cells used the artificial mRNA to produce functional p53 protein."

In the next step, the scientists cultivated ovarian tumors – organoids – from patient cells sourced by the team led by Professor Sven Becker, Director of the Women's Clinic at University Hospital Frankfurt. After treatment with the artificial mRNA, the organoids shrank and began to die. 

To test whether the artificial mRNA is also effective in organisms and can combat metastases in the abdomen, the researchers implanted human ovarian tumor cells into the ovaries of mice and injected the mRNA liposomes into the animals some time later. The result was very convincing, says Strebhardt: “With the help of the artificial mRNA, cells in the animals treated produced large quantities of the functional p53 protein, and as a result both the tumors in the ovaries and the metastases disappeared almost completely." 

That the method was so successful is partly due to recent advances in mRNA technology: Normally, mRNA transcripts are very sensitive and degraded by cells within minutes. However, it is meanwhile possible to prevent this by specifically modifying the molecules. This extends their lifespan substantially, in this study to up to two weeks.

In addition, the chemical composition of the artificial mRNA is slightly different to that of its natural counterpart. This prevents the immune system from intervening after the molecule has been injected and from triggering inflammatory responses. In 2023, the Hungarian scientist Katalin Karikó and her American colleague Drew Weissman were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this discovery. “Thanks to the development of mRNA vaccines such as those of BioNTech and Moderna, which went into action during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, we now also know how to make the molecules even more effective," explains Strebhardt. 

Strebhardt, Raab and Becker are now looking for partners to join the next step of the translational project: testing on patients with ovarian cancer. “What is crucial now is the question of whether we can implement the concept and the results in clinical reality and use our method to help cancer patients," says Strebhardt. The latest results make him very optimistic that the tide could finally turn in the treatment of ovarian carcinomas. “p53 mRNA is not a normal therapeutic that targets a specific weak point in cancer cells. Instead, we are repairing a natural mechanism that the body normally uses very effectively to suppress carcinogenesis. This is a completely different quality of cancer therapy."

Publication: Monika Raab, Izabela Kostova, Samuel Peña-Llopis, Daniela Fietz, Monika Kressin, Seyed Mohsen Aberoumandi, Evelyn Ullrich, Sven Becker, Mourad Sanhaji, Klaus Strebhardt. Rescue of p53 functions by in vitro-transcribed mRNA impedes the growth of high-grade serous ovarian cancer. Cancer Commun (Lond). 2023 Dec 22. 

Picture download: 

Caption: Tumors produced from cells taken from patients with ovarian cancer, known as organoids (light microscope images, left side), start to shrink and die after treatment with p53 mRNA (bottom pictures), which is visible in the red coloring (right side). Red bars: 200 micrometers. Photos: Monika Raab, University Hospital Frankfurt 

Further Information: Professor Klaus Strebhardt Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics Department of Molecular Gynecology and Obstetrics University Hospital Frankfurt / Goethe University Frankfurt Telephone: +49 (0)69 6301- 6894 

Twitter/X: @goetheuni @UK_Frankfurt


Jan 23 2024

Chemist at Ruhr University Bochum switches on non-toxic precursors of platinum preparations in cancer cells using light or ultrasound 

Cytostatics with a remote trigger: Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Early Career Award 2024 goes to Johannes Karges

Dr. Johannes Karges (31), a chemist from Ruhr University Bochum, will be awarded the Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Early Career Award 2024, the Scientific Council of the Paul Ehrlich Foundation announced today. The prizewinner discovered how platinum-containing chemotherapeutics accumulate in tumor tissue, and how, from here, they can be activated using either light or ultrasound as triggers. Karges already provided preclinical proof of these methods, whose translation into clinical practice could drastically reduce the serious side effects of these most commonly used cancer drugs worldwide and significantly increase their effectiveness. 

FRANKFURT. Around half of all chemotherapy treatments worldwide are carried out with cisplatin and two of its derivatives. These cytostatic drugs prevent cancer cells from dividing, and have shown impressive success against some types of cancer for several decades already. They do, however, quickly lead to resistance. Given that platinum preparations also inhibit the division of healthy body cells, they are associated with serious side effects, which range from nausea and vomiting to kidney, hearing and nerve damage and even inhibition of blood formation in the bone marrow. That is why the search for a way to ensure these cytostatic drugs only act on the cancer cells they are intended to destroy has long been underway. This would make them similar to magic bullets in the sense of Paul Ehrlich, which only cure the disease without harming the rest of the body. The research conducted by Johannes Karges and his team has breathed new life into this vision. 

The two initial questions of this research were: How can we selectively accumulate the cytostatic drug or a precursor thereof in the tumor? And, following on from this: How can we selectively activate it there? The answer lies in the construction of tiny spheres (nanoparticles) that are too large to penetrate healthy tissue, but small enough to squeeze between cancer cells. Healthy cells are tightly bound together, whereas, due to the high division rate of its cells, the connection between tumor tissue is patchy. The nanoparticles are equipped with built-in remote triggers that are activated by external signals. Photo- or sonosensitizers are suitable as receivers. These molecules have the ability to convert the energy of absorbed light or sound into chemical reactions in which electrons are released and absorbed (redox reactions). 

Together with his Chinese research partner Prof. Haihua Xiao, Karges has so far successfully tested two mixtures that can be “detonated" in cancer cells using these time fuses. In the first case, he coupled the active ingredient oxaliplatin to a photosensitizer and bound both molecules into a fat-soluble polymer, onto whose ends he attached water-soluble peptides, which acted as “address labels", so to speak, for transport into the cell nucleus. The resulting chains self-assembled into spheres with a diameter of some 80 nanometers. Once these beads reached the nucleus of the cancer cell, nothing happened – that is, as long as darkness prevailed. The moment these spheres were irradiated with red light, they disintegrated, releasing oxaliplatin and highly aggressive oxygen, and thereby destroying the cancer cells. 

However, red light does not penetrate deeper than one centimeter into an organism and therefore cannot reach most human tumors. Ultrasound waves travel ten times the distance in the body. That is why, in the second case, Karges used a computer to calculate which sonosensitizers, when irradiated with ultrasound waves, could convert a non-toxic precursor (prodrug) of cisplatin into the toxic substance. He found hemoglobin to be best suited and proceeded to pack the biomolecule and the prodrug into nanoparticles in the tried and tested way. In this instance, too, the particles selectively accumulated in cancer cells. While they remained stable under physiological conditions, after sonication in the presence of ascorbic acid, it took only a few minutes for the prodrug to convert entirely into cisplatin. 

Karges and Xiao were able to confirm their findings obtained in cell cultures in experiments with mice. In both of the cases described above, the tumors of the animals injected with the nanoparticles disappeared almost completely within a short time after external irradiation with red light or ultrasound. 

Johannes Karges, PhD, studied chemistry at Philipps-Universität Marburg and at Imperial College London from 2011 to 2016. As a doctoral student, he conducted research in the field of bioinorganics at the École Nationale Supérieure de Chimie de Paris, France, and at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, China. After his PhD, he worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, San Diego, in La Jolla from 2020 to 2022. Since November 2022, he has headed his own research group at Ruhr University Bochum as a Liebig Fellow of the German Chemical Industry Fund. 

The Chairman of the Scientific Council of the Paul Ehrlich Foundation will present the Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Early Career Award 2024 as well as the Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize 2024 during a festive ceremony held 14 March 2024 at 5 p.m. in Frankfurt's Paulskirche. 

Pictures of the award winner and detailed background information "Remote-controlled magic bullets" are available for download at: 

Further information
Press Office Paul Ehrlich Foundation
Joachim Pietzsch
Phone: +49 (0)69 36007188

Editor: Joachim Pietzsch/Dr. Markus Bernards, Science Editor, PR & Communication Office, Theodor-W.-Adorno-Platz 1, 60323 Frankfurt am Main, Tel: +49 (0) 69 798-12498, Fax: +49 (0) 69 798-763 12531,


Jan 18 2024

Luciano Rezzolla and his team at Goethe University Frankfurt contributed theorical calculations needed to interpret the radio astronomy data 

Second image of M87* black hole: All theoretical predictions confirmed

The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration – including theoretical physicists from Goethe University – has released new images of M87*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy Messier 87, using data from observations taken in April 2018. The new images reveal a familiar ring the same size as the one observed in 2017. This bright ring surrounds a deep central depression, “the shadow of the black hole", as predicted by general relativity. Excitingly, the brightness peak of the ring has shifted by about 30º compared to the images from 2017, which is consistent with the theoretical understanding of variability from turbulent material around black holes. 

FRANKFURT. “A fundamental requirement of science is to be able to reproduce results," says Dr. Keiichi Asada, an associate research fellow at Academia Sinica Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics in Taiwan. “Confirmation of the ring in a completely new data set is a huge milestone for our collaboration and a strong indication that we are looking at a black hole shadow and the material orbiting around it." 

Luciano Rezzolla, EHT executive board member and professor at Goethe University Frankfurt, emphasizes: "All predictions for the appearance of the black hole M87* that we made on the basis of Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity can be confirmed with the second image of M87*. The brightness peak of the ring is also in the 'right' place, because we are looking at the emission from turbulent material in the accretion disk around this black hole at a certain inclination." This second image of M87* may not seem very spectacular to the public, says the theoretical physicist whose team at Goethe University has provided essential contributions to the theoretical modelling of the data: “However, for science, it is an extremely important confirmation. While the excitement in science obviously comes with the discovery, the confidence in science comes from the confirmation of previous results. Hence, the new image testifies that the analysis behind first image of a black hole was indeed correct and accurate." 

In 2017, the EHT took the first image of a black hole. This object, M87*, is the beating heart of the giant elliptical galaxy Messier 87 and lives 55 million light years away from Earth. The image of the black hole revealed a bright circular ring, brighter in the southern part of the ring. Further analysis of the data also revealed the structure of M87* in polarized light, giving us greater insight into the geometry of the magnetic field and the nature of the plasma around the black hole. 

The new era of black hole direct imaging, spearheaded by the extensive analysis of the 2017 observations of M87* opened a new window that let us investigate black hole astrophysics and allow us to test the theory of general relativity at a fundamental level. Our theoretical models tell us that the state of the material around M87* should be uncorrelated between 2017 and 2018. Thus, multiple observations of M87* will help us place independent constraints on the plasma and magnetic field structure around the black hole and help us disentangle the complicated astrophysics from the effects of general relativity. 

To help accomplish new and exciting science, the EHT is under continuous development. The Greenland Telescope joined the EHT for the first time in 2018, just five months after its construction was completed far above the Arctic Circle. This new telescope significantly improved the image fidelity of the EHT array, improving the coverage, particularly in the North-South direction. The Large Millimeter Telescope also participated for the first time with its full 50 m surface, greatly improving its sensitivity. The EHT array was also upgraded to observe in four frequency bands around 230 GHz, compared to only two bands in 2017. 

Repeated observations with an improved array are essential to demonstrate the robustness of our findings and strengthen our confidence in our results. In addition to the groundbreaking science, the EHT also serves as a technology testbed for cutting-edge developments in high-frequency radio interferometry. 

"Advancing scientific endeavors requires continuous enhancement in data quality and analysis techniques," said Rohan Dahale, a PhD candidate at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía (IAA-CSIC) in Spain. "The inclusion of the Greenland Telescope in our array filled critical gaps in our earth-sized telescope. The 2021, 2022, and the forthcoming 2024 observations witness improvements to the array, fueling our enthusiasm to push the frontiers of black hole astrophysics." 

The analysis of the 2018 data features eight independent imaging and modeling techniques, including methods used in the previous 2017 analysis of M87* and new ones developed from the collaboration's experience analyzing Sgr A*. 

The image of M87* taken in 2018 is remarkably similar to what we saw in 2017. We see a bright ring of the same size, with a dark central region and one side of the ring brighter than the other. The mass and distance of M87* will not appreciably increase throughout a human lifetime, so general relativity predicts that the ring diameter should stay the same from year to year. The stability of the measured diameter in the images from 2017 to 2018 robustly supports the conclusion that M87* is well described by general relativity. 

“One of the remarkable properties of a black hole is that its radius is strongly dependent on only one quantity: its mass," said Dr. Nitika Yadlapalli Yurk, a former graduate student at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), now a postdoctoral fellow at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. “Since M87* is not accreting material (which would increase its mass) at a rapid rate, general relativity tells us that its radius will remain fairly unchanged over human history. It's pretty exciting to see that our data confirm this prediction." 

While the size of the black hole shadow did not change between 2017 and 2018, the location of the brightest region around the ring did change significantly. The bright region rotated about 30º counterclockwise to settle in the bottom right part of the ring at about the 5 o'clock position. Historical observations of M87* with a less sensitive array and fewer telescopes also indicated that the shadow structure changes yearly (Wielgus 2020, ApJ, 901, 67) but with less precision. While the 2018 EHT array still cannot observe the jet emerging from M87*, the black hole spin axis predicted from the location of the brightest region around the ring is more consistent with the jet axis seen at other wavelengths. 

“The biggest change, that the brightness peak shifted around the ring, is actually something we predicted when we published the first results in 2019," said Dr. Britt Jeter, a postdoctoral fellow at Academia Sinica Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics in Taiwan. “While general relativity says the ring size should stay pretty fixed, the emission from the turbulent, messy accretion disk around the black hole will cause the brightest part of the ring to wobble around a common center. The amount of wobble we see over time is something we can use to test our theories for the magnetic field and plasma environment around the black hole." 

While all the EHT papers published so far have featured an analysis of our first observations in 2017, this result represents the first efforts to explore the many additional years of data we've collected. In addition to 2017 and 2018, the EHT conducted successful observations in 2021 and 2022 and is scheduled to observe in the first half of 2024. Each year, the EHT array has improved in some way, either through the addition of new telescopes, better hardware, or additional observing frequencies. Within the collaboration, we are working very hard to analyze all this data and are excited to show you more results in the future. 

More information
The EHT collaboration involves more than 300 researchers from Africa, Asia, Europe, and North and South America. The international collaboration is working to capture the most detailed black hole images ever obtained by creating a virtual Earth-sized telescope. Supported by considerable international investment, the EHT links existing telescopes using novel systems, creating a fundamentally new instrument with the highest angular resolving power that has yet been achieved. 

The individual telescopes involved are ALMA, APEX, the IRAM 30-meter Telescope, the IRAM NOEMA Observatory, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT), the Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT), the Submillimeter Array (SMA), the Submillimeter Telescope (SMT), the South Pole Telescope (SPT), the Kitt Peak Telescope, and the Greenland Telescope (GLT). Data were correlated at the Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie (MPIfR) and MIT Haystack Observatory. The postprocessing was done within the collaboration by an international team at different institutions. 

The EHT consortium consists of 13 stakeholder institutes: the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics, the University of Arizona, the University of Chicago, the East Asian Observatory, Goethe-Universitaet Frankfurt, Institut de Radioastronomie Millimétrique, Large Millimeter Telescope, Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, MIT Haystack Observatory, National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, Radboud University, and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. 

Publication: Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration. The persistent shadow of the supermassive black hole of M 87. I. Observations, calibration, imaging, and analysis. Astronomy & Astrophysics, 18th January 2024, 

Picture download: 

Caption: The first and second images of the black hole M87*: The diameter of the shadow enclosed by the ring is identical. As expected, the brightness distribution of the radiation emitted by the matter swirling around the black hole has shifted. Credit: EHT Collaboration 

Further Information:
Professor Luciano Rezzolla
Institute for Theoretical Physics
Goethe University Frankfurt
Phone: +49 (69) 798-47871
Twitter/X: @goetheuni @ehtelescope

Editor: Dr. Markus Bernards, Science Editor, PR & Communication Office, Theodor-W.-Adorno-Platz 1, 60323 Frankfurt, Tel: +49 (0) 69 798-12498, Fax: +49 (0) 69 798-763 12531,


Jan 17 2024

Two Frankfurt-based “Specialised Information Services” (SIS) will enter the next funding phase in 2024

DFG provides €2 million in funding for further expansion of University Library information services 

FRANKFURT. The German Research Foundation [Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG] has approved almost €2 million in funding for the further expansion of the African Studies and Performing Arts Specialised Information Services (SIS) projects of Frankfurt-based Johann Christian Senckenberg University Library (JCS UB). With six specialized information services under its belt – African Studies, General and Comparative Literature, Biodiversity Research, Performing Arts, Jewish Studies, and Linguistics – JCS University Library is a key player in the SIS system. Its goal: provide high-quality and subject-specific services, continuously develop these, and anchor them for the long term. 

The African Studies SIS has been developing subject-specific information services for Africa-related humanities and social sciences based on special academic needs since 2016. The procurement of literature from the African continent and the African diaspora will continue to remain one of its central tasks in this third funding phase, which will also see the expansion of the SIS' supra-regional licenses. Several trips are planned to acquire literature that is not available via other distribution channels. As part of an innovative pilot project for data work, so-called "communities of implication" will be involved in developing standard data for oral sources. The African Studies Library – the central information platform of the African Studies SIS – will receive several new functions: To improve research opportunities, a geographically explorative search will be implemented, which will make it possible to find publications by region and topic. In addition, it will also be possible in future to place interlibrary loan and Subito orders directly from the portal, while a new Researcher Compass will simplify the transdisciplinary and transcontinental networking of researchers. 

In operation since 2015, JCS University Library has been continuously developing the Performing Arts SIS as a key specialist information infrastructure. The work of this specialised information service is characterized by its close ties to the heritage institutions of the performing arts and its consistent orientation towards the needs of the theater and dance research community. The focus of this, the fourth funding phase, is on consolidating and optimizing the SIS portal, aggregating and curating further collection data and publishing it digitally on the SIS performing arts portal, as well as on further developing research-related services, e.g. mapping collections of performing arts program booklets. In addition, the recording of persons and organizations in the Integrated Authority File [Gemeinsame Normdatei, GND] will be intensified, as will the work in the Standardization Committee's Performing Arts Working Group. A new Research Navigator Performing Arts is also being set up to curate and publish freely accessible e-resources, research projects and research data on theater and dance studies in the SIS portal. Where possible, the open access criteria of free availability and accessibility of sources (FAIR principles) are applied. 

With its six SIS, UB JCS supports the transformation of German academia brought about by ongoing digitalization. As a key interface, the work performed by these SIS contributes to the long-term partnership between and the transfer of knowledge among research and infrastructure facilities. The library has extensive expertise in subject librarianship, information science and technology for the professional curation and indexing of media and (research) data, as well as the development and operation of corresponding services. 

Further information: 

FID African Studies: Dr. Aïsha Othman, a.othman@ub.uni-frankfurt.de
FID Performing Arts: Franziska Voß, f.voss@ub.uni-frankfurt.de 

Contact for general press inquiries:
Bernhard Wirth, Central Library Staff Departments for PR and Personnel Development, Tel. +49 (69) 798 39223; E-Mail:

Editor: Dr. Dirk Frank, Press Officer/ Deputy Press Spokesperson, PR & Communications Office, Theodor-W.-Adorno-Platz 1, 60323 Frankfurt am Main, Tel.: +49 (0)69/798-13753,


Dec 22 2023

The national project “gwTriade” is elaborating a concept for a comprehensive assessment of groundwater quality – coordinated by Goethe University

Joint research project on groundwater: searching for underground pollutants 

The joint project, recently launched under the name “gwTriade," involves six scientific institutes with Goethe University Frankfurt as the coordinator, which are investigating groundwater quality in Germany. This is the first time the triad approach has been applied to combine chemical analyses and methods revealing how pollutants entering the groundwater affect the ecosystem there – called effect-based methods. The project aims to develop a concept that water suppliers and nature conservation authorities can use in the future to examine and assess the groundwater quality themselves. The gwTriade project is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. 

FRANKFURT. The effects of climate change pose an ever-greater threat to our groundwater because more frequent and longer periods of drought reduce groundwater levels. Groundwater is therefore already supplemented with surface water in conurbations like the Rhine-Main area. This surface water often contains treated wastewater that may add pollutants to the groundwater. More frequent heavy rainfalls – another consequence of climate change – lead to large quantities of pollutants entering the groundwater. As a result, over one third of all groundwater bodies in Germany fail to achieve good chemical status. The European Water Framework Directive establishes the legal framework for assessing the quality of groundwater. However, a “huge amount of investigation" into the groundwater quality is still required, according to Professor Henner Hollert from the Institute of Ecology, Diversity and Evolution at Goethe University Frankfurt. Chemical analyses have identified at least some of the pollutants in the groundwater, including drugs, pesticides and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which originate from the wastewater, traffic or agriculture. “What we don't have at all is effect-based data, i.e. data about how the pollutants impact life in the groundwater ecosystem and also human health. We already know a lot about surface water, but not about the groundwater." 

The project “Ecological and Ecotoxicological Groundwater Quality Monitoring based on an Integrative Triad Approach" (gwTriade) is now set to plug that knowledge gap. The triad approach combines three different scientific pillars: chemical analyses, bioassays and studies of biocenosis, i.e. the interactions between organisms living in a certain habitat. The crucial aspect is that results from the three measuring methodologies are combined into an overall result – only when this has been done can the ecological status be comprehensively assessed. “We are the first to apply the triad approach to groundwater," Hollert stresses. “It gives us a good overview. We can see what pollutants are present in the groundwater, and how they affect organisms and biological systems – both under laboratory conditions and in the field." 

Six institutes are involved in the project and the tasks are shared among them. Hollert and his colleague Dr. Sabrina Schiwy coordinate gwTriade and conduct tests using a battery of bioassays that was also recently put forward to the European Commission for environmental monitoring. The testing systems are cell culture systems, zebrafish embryos, algae and Daphnia (tiny water fleas). Schiwy explains how Daphnia is used: “First of all we test the effects of the pollutants in the unaltered groundwater samples. Next, we dilute the groundwater samples and thus the concentrations of pollutants, and observe what happens. In this way we discover which dilutions of groundwater pollutants cause which effects in Daphnia." For example, if a substance with reproductive toxicity is present, the water fleas do not multiply as much as they normally would. In zebrafish embryos neurotoxic effects may occur, i.e. disruptions of the nervous system that lead to a change in behavior. “Zebrafish have a typical pattern of swimming behavior," Schiwy explains. “If it's light, they show relaxed behavior. If it suddenly gets dark, they swim in hectic zigzags." The reason is that the sudden appearance of a shadow could mean a predator is approaching. To see in the lab whether the fish larvae display this normal behavior, they are exposed to an alternating regime of light and darkness in a special experimental set-up. If the fish do not react, this is an indication that pollutants might have impaired their nervous system. If the researchers suspect this, the neurotoxic effect is characterized in detail using methods from molecular biology. The behavioral tests are not solely about ecotoxicological aspects, Henner Hollert adds, but are also relevant to human toxicology. Studies involving the early stages of zebrafish – an alternative to classical animal experiments – are also an established model in environmental medicine. “Zebrafish are vertebrates, which means that the results give indications about possible effects in human beings. We can draw conclusions for the protection of human health." 

To supplement the bioassays in Frankfurt, chemical analyses are also performed by the IWW Water Centre in Mühlheim an der Ruhr and the Zweckverband Landeswasserversorgung (state water supply association) in Langenau. The IWW analyzes the PFAS contamination in particular and also investigates the geosystem. This generates a geochemical, hydrochemical and hydraulic description of the sites where the groundwater samples are taken. The third type of investigation is undertaken by the University of Kaiserslautern-Landau (RPTU). It examines the composition of the groundwater fauna, which includes Cyclops and rotifers, for example, using taxonomic methods and modern methods from molecular biology. With e-DNA analyses and metabarcoding it is possible to detect genetic fragments of all living creatures that have lived or currently live in the water. This enables research into the composition of the entire community of living organisms in the groundwater. The Institute of Groundwater Ecology (IGÖ) in Landau provides support here with its expertise in groundwater ecology and especially in identifying new groundwater organisms for bioassays. 

The gwTriade scientists are not only interested in examining certain selected sites. They want to develop a concept for the integrative assessment of the groundwater quality for regional and national bodies throughout Germany with responsibility for groundwater, such as water suppliers and nature conservation authorities. Hollert says, “Our assessment system gives them a guide to how they can apply the methods for monitoring groundwater quality – and to how the data collected can be examined and put into context." The task of finding potential users and clarifying their needs is assumed by the Institute for Social-Ecological Research (ISOE) in Frankfurt. It also tries to identify use conflicts relating to groundwater that could occur in the future, for instance between using groundwater as a resource and protection of the ecosystem. From a biological viewpoint, according to Hollert and Schiwy, groundwater is also a habitat. It's just that until now this perspective has not received enough attention. 

Background: gwTriade: Ecological and Ecotoxicological Groundwater Quality Monitoring based on an Integrative Triad Approach 

Images for download: 

Caption: A copepod is a crustacean barely a millimeter in size which lives in groundwater. The presence of such animals is an indicator of good water quality. Photo: Sabrina Schiwy, Goethe University Frankfurt 

Further information
Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Henner Hollert 
Head of the Evolutionary Ecology and Environmental Toxicology Department
Institute for Ecology, Evolution and Diversity
Goethe University Frankfurt
Tel. +49 (0)69 798-42171 

Dr. rer. nat. Sabrina Schiwy
Department of Evolutionary Ecology & Environmental Toxicology
Institute for Ecology, Evolution and Diversity
Goethe University Frankfurt
Tel: +49 (0)69 798 42173

Editor: Dr. Markus Bernards, Science Editor PR & Communication Office, Theodor-W.-Adorno-Platz 1, 60323 Frankfurt am Main, Tel: +49 (0) 69 798-12498, Fax: +49 (0) 69 798-763-12531,