University of Glasgow launches major bio-desalination project

Published: 6 October 2011

Scientists led by Dr Anna Amtmann from the Institute for Molecular, Cell and Systems Biology at the University of Glasgow have been awarded more than a million pounds from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council {EPSRC} to tackle the problem of water desalination.

The team will spend the next three years investigating how the biology of marine organisms might be used to deliver effective desalination.  As Dr Amtmann explained, “Salt is toxic to all living cells but marine organisms have developed means to actively export the salt from their bodies. This is why fish don’t taste salty. The basic idea of the project is simple; grow a large volume of marine life, then switch off the salt export mechanism and use the cells as ion exchangers to extract the salt from the surrounding seawater.”

Water covers more than 70% of Earth’s surface but less than 2% of it is available as freshwater. The current famine in East Africa is an acute reminder of the fact that the lack of water limits food production in many parts of the world, a problem that will become ever more severe as the world population multiplies. Many of the driest regions of our planet are close to the sea but irrigation of fields with seawater – even if diluted – leads to the build-up of salt levels in the soil that are toxic to all common crops. Current desalination technologies are expensive and energy inefficient.

Joining Dr Anna Amtmann in a multi-disciplinary team will be Prof. Linda Lawton from Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen who specialises in marine microorganisms; Prof. Catherine Biggs from Sheffield University, an environmental engineer; Dr. Michael Templeton from Imperial College London, a water engineer with extensive experience in developing countries, and Dr. Jaime Amezaga, a chemical engineer from Newcastle University who specialises in environmental policy and sustainability. The team thus covers all the levels from fundamental biology to field application – ‘from cell to tap’, as the name of the £1M project implies.

The project – from Cell to Tap – will be formally launched at Glasgow University on Friday 7 October.

For more information contact Peter Aitchison in the University of Glasgow Media Relations Office on 0141 330 3535; or email

First published: 6 October 2011

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