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Always on duty for the environment

Springtails, earthworms, midges, zebrafish, bees and bacteria – they all have an important job at Innovative Environmental Services (IES) Ltd. With their help, the company can determine the toxicity of novel substances to the environment. Our Biozentrum alumnus Gottfried Eisner explains exactly how this is accomplished.

You have been working at IES since 2015. What has been your most exciting project so far? 
That was clearly the construction of our new laboratories three years ago. Our company wanted to expand into the field of aquatic ecotoxicology. Back then, we moved into a completely empty building, which was more like a construction site. There was nothing that looked like a lab. The three of us plowed through catalogues and ordered everything from spatulas to complex analytic instruments, assembled them and got them running. Setting up a lab from scratch was pretty challenging but also very satisfying. Recently, I built a miniature sewage treatment plant. That was very exciting, too!

Why do you need a sewage plant in the lab?
We study the environmental toxicity of substances, but also whether they are degraded or accumulate in organisms and in the environment. In addition to algae, daphnia, fish and midges, we also test the substances on microorganisms in sewage sludge. Generally, we receive fresh, activated sludge from the treatment plant in Birsfelden. Then, according to international standardized guidelines, we test whether a substance could cause problems in the treatment plant, and how quickly it degrades. Substances that can be degraded by at least seventy percent within 10 days are considered harmless. But we also often have to deal with substances that are difficult to handle. With our laboratory-scale treatment plant, we can test these more closely and more accurately.

How difficult was it to build a mini sewage treatment plant?
That wasn’t easy. As a biologist, I am very familiar with the microbiological processes but know little about the technical side. The level of details and precision required made the project very challenging. As with a real treatment plant we had to build various basins to ensure that the flow remains constant and that the aeration, temperature and pH values are correct. The test substance has to be applied continuously at a constant concentration over several weeks. Now our system works and we have already carried out our first study. 

And when you are not working on a special project?
Then I look after ecotoxicology studies. As the Study Director, I develop study plans that specify the lab work down to the finest detail and supervise the implementation. All the steps must be GLP* compliant and everything has to be precisely recorded. At the end, I evaluate all the results and write a study report. My tasks also include advising clients, providing training, developing and evaluating new methods and routinely checking and calibrating our instruments and equipment.

Where do your clients come from?
Mainly from the pharmaceutical, chemical or agrochemical sectors. Before a company can introduce a new substance onto the market, the product must undergo an environmental impact assessment. We test a broad spectrum of substances ranging from fragrances used in the perfume industry, antibacterial compounds in wood paints, active agents in cancer drugs to new pesticide mixtures and plant extracts. It is important to mention that our study results are independent and cannot be influenced by the client.

Then you don’t know the toxicity of a substance beforehand?
No, usually we don’t. The substances we test for our clients are an “unknown quantity” in this regard. For this reason, we always have to assume the worst and handle the substance with extreme caution. Once we had to test a rather explosive material. We literally handled it with kid gloves. In fact, clients often entrust studies with especially challenging substances to IES, because we are such an experienced lab.

You studied biology at the University of Jassy in Romania. Why there?
Well, that’s quite simple. I was born and raised in Romania. For centuries there have been two German-speaking minorities: the Reformed Transylvanian Saxons, to which I belong, and the Catholic Banat Swabians. I grew up in a small town in Transylvania - yes, this region really exists. At that time many Hungarians, Germans and Romanians lived there and, we grew up speaking these three languages. Many Romanian Germans emigrated, although this was very difficult back then. With the fall of the Iron Curtain and the newly gained freedom, however, a mass emigration occurred. During my youth, I also thought a lot about my identity and realized that my German side was much more a part of me. 

When did you then emigrate?
On October 3, 1997. I still remember the exact date. I had just completed postgraduate studies in ecology and started work in the botanical garden. But there were no prospects for young, well educated people. So, I made my way to Germany. I was in my mid-twenties and I arrived in Germany as a late resettler. My first stop was a reception camp in Rastatt.

And then?
I wanted to join my relatives in Gummersbach near Cologne, but the city’s “resettler contingent” had already reached its capacity. So I was housed with two other resettlers in a small apartment in Cologne. I then did advanced training as an environmental officer and subsequently found an internship at the sewage treatment plant in Cologne. Meanwhile, I looked for PhD positions and was successful in Freiburg im Breisgau. I did my PhD on protein transport in Prof. Matthias Müller’s lab. Using sophisticated methodology, we investigated how a newly synthesized polypeptide chain is recognized by the ribosome and transported to the cell membrane.

When did the Biozentrum appear on the scene?
After my PhD, with an EMBO Fellowship in my pocket, I came to Prof. Guy Cornelis at the Biozentrum. The group was using various techniques to elucidate which proteins are involved in the assembly of the type III secretion system in Yersinia. My goal was to apply my methods to study these bacteria, in order to follow the step by step assembly of the injection apparatus in membrane vesicles. This project made me somewhat an unconventional curiosity in the group. After my EMBO Fellowship, I continued research for another year with Prof. Andreas Engel, but it already was clear to me that I wanted to leave the university.

And so you moved into private industry…
I thought it would be easier to make a “new start” in a smaller company. So I applied to the company RCC, which carried out environmental analysis, and started my first job in the field of ecotoxicology. However, RCC was soon bought by Harlan, which already had a similar lab in England. For us at our Swiss location, these were difficult times and eventually the lab closed down. Luckily, our expertise was needed by IES. Many of my present colleagues also worked previously at RCC, respectively Harlan, and I am very glad that we could show that a Swiss lab could survive on the world market.

Does your work influence your private life?
Of course, I try to live as environmentally friendly as possible. In my son’s school class, I carried out a project with our lab midges, from the eggs to the larvae and through to their emergence as adult insects. I think it is important to demonstrate that in our work we uncover environmental toxins and prevent their usage. In this respect, there are very strict laws and we are helping to implement them. So we are the good guys (he laughts).

Curriculum vitae
Gottfried Eisner is Study Director Ecotoxicology at the company Innovative Environmental Services (IES) Ltd in Witterswil, near Basel. He studied biology, majoring in ecology at the Jassy University in Romania and earned his PhD at the University of Freiburg in Germany. He came to the Biozentrum as a postdoc with an EMBO Fellowship and first carried out research in Prof. Guy Cornelis’s lab and then with Prof. Andreas Engel. He subsequently joined RCC Ltd and later Harlan Laboratories. He lives with his wife and two children in Grenzach, Germany.

* Good Laboratory Practice: Standards for the safety testing of chemicals, drugs etc. GLP is required by law in Switzerland.