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The shells that will reveal to us the state of air pollution in the ocean

Researchers and students from the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in collaboration with the Research of the Seas and Lakes in Israel, have found that marine organisms can be a cheap, accurate and effective means of measuring industrial pollution on the seashores and will even make it possible to identify in advance areas approaching dangerous levels of pollution.

Researchers and students from the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in collaboration with the Research of the Seas and Lakes in Israel, have found that marine organisms can be a cheap, accurate and effective means of measuring industrial pollution on the seashores and will even make it possible to identify in advance areas approaching dangerous levels of pollution.

Waste that pollutes the seas and oceans is one of the biggest ecological problems in the world. Many measurements have been made over the years to understand the state of water pollution, but the measurements were able to indicate water pollution at a given time during the test, so actually measuring water pollution the next day may yield a completely different result.

Prof. Sigal Abramovich and Dr. Dana Titelbaum from the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, together with Prof. Barak Hirot of Sea and Lake Research in Israel and Dr. Ahuva Almogi-Labin from the Geological Institute, offer a solution to the problem using a marine microorganism called foraminifera. If you haven't heard of him - you are not the only one. It is a single-celled microorganism that produces a hard calcareous shell (skeleton). Although it is not very well known, it is one of the most common and oldest animals in the oceans and is found in a variety of marine environments around the world.

Throughout its life, the foraminifera produces a skeleton made of the mineral calcite, which absorbs chemical elements found in the water, among them, for example, heavy metals originating from coastal industries. Geochemical measurements of their skeletons make it possible to examine the level of pollution in the water and even monitor very low levels of pollution as an initial warning sign.

In addition, the foraminifera is built as a kind of shell consisting of both ancient and new parts. Throughout his life, he adds more parts to his body over time. Each part - marks a point on the timeline of his life. So in fact, if we perform geochemical measurements of the different parts of the skeleton - we will be able to know what the level of seawater pollution was at different times throughout its life. 

The means currently available on the market for measuring seawater pollution are direct measurements of the water, the concentrations of the seabed and the tissues of marine animals - however, each of these tools has limitations that do not allow obtaining a complete picture of the water pollution over time.

"The use of foraminifera allowed us to detect low-medium pollution levels that were not detected by the global measurement means. This allows us to warn about this in advance and prevent reaching a medium-high level of pollution on the beaches", explains Prof. Abramovich. "Our research demonstrates the potential of using skeletal foraminifera as a tool to detect the industrial footprint of coastal facilities including areas that have been considered clean nature reserves. In fact, the foraminifera can be used as live recording devices for heavy metal pollution in the oceans.'

"We arrived at this identification tool after years of accumulated knowledge in the department," Prof. Abramovich shares. "I live and breathe the world of foraminifera, know how to evaluate their sensitivity to environmental factors, the biological effect of these factors, what climatic history can be learned from them and more. It's fascinating, it's about a whole world that sheds light on the biological and climatic history of the planet."

The research was supported by the Ministry of Science and the Israel-Germany Binational Foundation.

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