How Zebrafish Detect the Presence of Water Contaminants

UNAM researcher Denhí Schnabel Peraza uses zebrafish embryos as biosensors to study emerging contaminants in water, such as carbamazepine. Collaborating with experts, she seeks solutions to mitigate the environmental impact and urges a broader approach to water treatment standards.

How Zebrafish Detect the Presence of Water Contaminants
Zebrafish embryos serve as sensitive biosensors, revealing the impact of emerging contaminants on aquatic life at a molecular level.

In a groundbreaking endeavor, Denhí Schnabel Peraza, a PhD candidate in Biomedical Sciences at UNAM, is delving into the realm of water contaminants known as organic micropollutants or emerging contaminants. These pollutants, once overlooked, are now under the scientific spotlight due to their potential impact on aquatic ecosystems.

Previous research has highlighted their role as endocrine disruptors, causing imbalances in gender ratios among wild fish populations. Interestingly, these contaminants are not only confined to industrial effluents but can be traced back to everyday products such as drugs, epoxy resins, polycarbonate plastics, and even common household items like toothpaste and cosmetics.

Collaborating with Dr. Alma Chávez from the UNAM Engineering Institute, Schnabel Peraza scrutinizes the concentrations of these contaminants from various sources, including homes, hospitals, and industries. Disturbingly, their analysis reveals that treatment plants, designed to meet existing standards, fail to filter out these contaminants, allowing them to persist in water bodies.

Employing zebrafish embryos as sensitive biosensors, Schnabel Peraza conducts toxicological studies to discern the effects of these contaminants. Zebrafish embryos, being particularly vulnerable to low concentrations of pollutants, offer a rapid assessment of potential deformities and molecular-level changes induced by the contaminants.

Schnabel Peraza emphasizes the importance of behavioral tests conducted on zebrafish larvae. In a controlled environment, untreated larvae exhibit typical responses to stimuli, while those exposed to contaminants display abnormal or erratic behaviors. This approach serves as a unique and efficient method to gauge the impact of emerging contaminants on aquatic life.

One specific focus of Schnabel Peraza's research is on carbamazepine, a medication commonly used to treat epilepsy. Disturbingly, this drug has been identified as a pervasive water contaminant. The researcher underscores the heightened concentrations observed during the pandemic, owing to its use in treating depression.

The implications are profound; carbamazepine's presence in water bodies could potentially disrupt fish motility, impacting their ability to evade predators and feed. The urgency lies in finding effective strategies to isolate or degrade these contaminants to ensure the sustainability of water sources.

Collaborating with Dr. María del Rayo Sánchez Carbente, an expert from the Biotechnology Research Center, Schnabel Peraza explores the potential of fungi capable of degrading carbamazepine. Identifying fungi thriving in the presence of this contaminant provides a ray of hope for combating its environmental impact.

While Mexico has established standards for water treatment, Schnabel Peraza advocates for a broader perspective. The limitations of current regulations necessitate attention to contaminants beyond the existing framework. The researcher calls for a reevaluation of water treatment strategies, emphasizing the need to monitor and address contaminants not currently covered by regulations.

As we grapple with issues of water scarcity, understanding and mitigating the impact of emerging contaminants on our water sources becomes crucial. The diligent work of researchers like Denhí Schnabel Peraza sheds light on hidden threats and paves the way for sustainable water management practices in the face of evolving challenges.