Kuwaiti experts use nuclear technology to study the marine environment

Lamya Al-Musallam, a senior research associate at KISR, checks the pH level in the tanks, which is controlled by a system provided by the IAEA. (Photo: Dean Calma/IAEA)

Kuwait — In the face of climate change and increased industrial activity, scientists in Kuwait are using nuclear science to address challenges to the marine environment, with the assistance of the IAEA.

“Kuwait is facing the effect of climate change, ocean acidification, pollution from the oil and shipping industry, power and desalination activities,” said Nader Al-Awadi, the Executive Commissioner for International Cooperation at the Kuwait Institute of Scientific Research (KISR), adding that these factors also impact the marine environment. “Kuwait is covering a broad range of techniques to study the marine environment and the application of nuclear technology is among the core methods.”

Ocean acidification: the other CO2 problem

With the establishment of a large-scale facility to carry out research on the acidification of oceans – a result of increased amounts of carbon dioxide entering the ocean, – investigations are conducted on different marine organisms. Experts are making regular measurements of temperature and water acidity levels, and looking at how marine life is likely to respond to such changes in coming decades, said Saif Uddin Iqbal Uddin, a senior research scientist at KISR.

Potential impacts of ocean acidification and ocean warming include the degradation or complete loss of critical habitats, such as sea grass beds and coral reefs, he said. Nuclear and isotopic techniques are utilized to understand past conditions of ocean warming and acidification, and to predict future responses of marine organisms, such as mussels, oysters and corals, under changing conditions.

The Gulf waters provide a natural lab and ideal environment to study how marine life might adapt to ocean changes. “Despite huge temperature fluctuations from 8 degrees Celsius to 36, corals are surviving,” he highlighted. At the same time, they are becoming more brittle due to ocean acidification. Under an IAEA project, studies focus on the effect of ocean acidification on calcification of key coral species.

Another important research area is the evaluation of the uptake of radioactivity and marine pollutants by marine sediments under ocean acidification. The seabed is a repository of contaminants and it has more pollution load than seawater, explained Saif Uddin.

Early warning systems

The use of early warning systems to assess radiation levels is another important area of research. In cooperation with the IAEA, Kuwait’s experts have established a marine radioactive assessment network, which compares the radiation levels to baseline radioactive levels established in the 1990s, said Saif Uddin, adding that regular assessments are undertaken to check any impact on the marine environment. Data demonstrates that radioactivity levels are normal, and marine life is safe.

Gamma ray detectors are deployed at sea in an array of locations and studies are conducted on water entering the Gulf to detect and, in conjunction with hydrodynamic measurements and modelling, evaluate if there is any radioactivity which can impact seawater desalination, which is the source of freshwater supply in the country. The IAEA support includes providing laboratory equipment as well as training of staff in gamma and alpha spectrometry, all of which are used to measure radioactivity in the marine environment.

Other IAEA supported projects relate to the monitoring of pollutants in the marine environment and how these have changed since the first Gulf war in 1990.

Nuclear technology is also used for seafood safety, for example, to monitor biotoxins produced by microscopic algae, known as harmful algal blooms (HABs). Factors such as surface water temperature, the circulation of wind and water, the natural movement of nutrient rich waters towards the surface or the accumulation of agricultural run-off into the sea can trigger algal blooms, which can sometimes include toxic species. These toxins then enter the food chain and present a danger for people and threaten the livelihood of communities depending on fisheries.

This is where using nuclear techniques such as the receptor binding assay (see Science box) to track biotoxins from HABs is useful. Under an IAEA supported project, this technique will be utilized for the detection of toxins in seafood. This information will be very important for hazard preparedness and as early warning, Saif Uddin said.

THE SCIENCE

Measuring biotoxins in seafood

The IAEA works with experts in Member States to develop the capacity to detect and measure biotoxins in seafood. By using nuclear and isotopic techniques, researchers can accurately measure biotoxins and study the way they are transferred from organism to organism, making their way up the food chain and potentially reaching our plates.

The radioligand receptor binding assay is one of the nuclear techniques used. It is based on the specific interaction between the toxins and the receptor they bind (pharmacological target), in which a radiolabelled toxin competes for a limited number of receptor binding sites with the toxin in the sample being analysed, allowing quantification of the toxicity of the sample.

Aabha Dixit, International Atomic Energy Agency, 28 January 2019. Article.

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