Coastal research

Laboratory of Environmental Toxicology and Aquatic Ecology

The Laboratory of Environmental Toxicology and Aquatic Ecology, led by professors Janssen, Goethals and De Schamphelaere, focusses both on fundamental and applied aspects of aquatic ecotoxicology and ecological risk assessment. Main research topics include the effects (at different levels of biological organization in both marine and freshwater environments) and the presence and availability of environmental contaminants in general and of metals, endocrine disruptors, natural toxins and persistent chemicals in particular.



The laboratory is composed of various sub-groups studying:

  1. The bioavailability and effects of metals in freshwater and marine ecosystems (sediment and water); 
  2. Acclimation (epigenetics), adaptation and micro-evolutionary consequences of stressors on aquatic organisms (both anthropogenic contaminants and global change stressors such as toxic algae);
  3. The presence and ecological effects of existing and new chemicals in the marine environment (endocrine disruptors, persistent substances, pharmaceutical substances) using new techniques (e.g. passive samplers);
  4. Development and validation of ecosystem models for the evaluation of indirect and direct effects of environmental contaminants and other stressors on the aquatic environment. 

Protistology and Aquatic Ecology Laboratory

The Protistology and Aquatic Ecology Laboratory, led by professors Vyverman and Sabbe, has been involved in research topics on the functioning and evolution of marine ecosystems, focusing on autotrophic unicellular eukaryotes, called protists. They aim to have a better understanding of the consequences of climate and environmental changes on protist communities, in combination with additional influence of dispersal. Besides community-level approaches, studies at the population and organismal level are also performed. To this end, they focus on dispersal and selection in model species of microalgae, as well as on life- and cell-cycles, evolution and diversity of diatoms. Other research topics include the evolution of mating systems, sexual behavior, reproductive barriers between closely related species and cryptic variation. More applied research focusses at the metabolic regulation of microalgae, interactions between algae and pathogens, and the exploitation of algae biodiversity to contribute to culturing algae in marine biotechnology.

Terrestrial Ecology Unit

The Terrestrial Ecology Unit, led by professors Lens, Bonte and Hoffmann, has extensive knowledge in population and community ecology, evolutionary ecology, plant-animal interactions and applied ecology. Apart from gaining evolutionary-ecological insights in the functioning of terrestrial ecosystems, the research group aims to apply this knowledge to the fields of conservation biology, forestry and agriculture. Specific coast-related research topics include the reproductive biology, spatial behaviour and migratory strategies of European Herring Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, the functioning of dune ecosystems, seed dispersal by large mammals, and dispersal strategies of coastal invertebrates.

Marine Biology Research Group

The Marine Biology Research Group, led by professors Vincx, Vanreusel and Moens, has a proven expertise in ecological and systematic research of marine benthic ecosystems worldwide with a focus on the study of patterns and processes of benthic biodiversity (from bacteria, Archaea, nematodes, copepods, polychaetes, bivalves, crustaceans, demersal fish,...). Benthic communities are analysed in relation to environmental changes by means of field sampling or by controlled lab and field experiments. The obtained data allow to quantify the functional responses of benthic organisms to e.g. temperature rises, ocean acidification, eutrophication, food quantity and quality, invasive species, trawling, windmills, coastal defence structures,… Furthermore, the obtained biodiversity patterns and individual responses of species are analysed in the context of ecosystem functioning, with a strong interaction between the biota, the environmental factors (both pelagic phase and seafloor) and the biogeochemical processes. The Marine Biology Research group generated long-term databases on the distribution of benthic communities that are relevant for marine conservation and management. Study sites: world-wide ranging from the intertidal and subtidal areas of the North Sea, intertidal mudflats along the Westerschelde estuary, tropical seagrass beds and mangrove forests, natural CO2 seepage sites to more extreme ecosystems like the deep sea, continental margins and polar regions.  

Laboratory of Microbiology

The Laboratory of Microbiology, led by professors Willems, Vandamme and De Vos, mainly focusses on diversity, ecology, phylogeny, classification and taxonomy of bacteria. Key research marine activities include polar microbiology, endosymbiotic bacteria, bacteria in the carbon and nitrogen cycles, and bacteria in marine benthic foodwebs. The latter is a collaboration with the Marine Biology research group, and focusses on marine coastal sediment food webs. They study how functional biodiversity at the level of the habitat-engineering macrobenthos cascades into levels of biodiversity at the microbial level, which is directly responsible for, for instance, denitrification. They also study functional properties of marine sediments and their inhabitants and combine field studies with micro- and mesocosm experiments.

Research Unit Sedimentary Geology and Engineering Geology

The Research unit Sedimentary Geology and Engineering Geology, led by professor Cnudde, studies both unconsolidated and consolidated sediments and aims to understand processes that lead to the disintegration of sediments and sedimentary rocks. More specifically, they focus on extrinsic processes that influence structural and chemical changes in sediments and sedimentary rocks, including chemical, physical and biological impacts. Their expertise encompasses conventional research techniques (e.g. optical microscopy) as well as non-destructive investigations of sedimentary rocks (e.g. CT scanning). Their holistic approach views both sedimentary rocks and extrinsic influences as part of a complex system. Current research endeavours encompass a variety of projects, including the link between nano-, micro-, and macroscale processes inside porous sedimentary rocks; the boundaries of the possibilities of the non-destructive imaging techniques and their improvement; the prediction of the macroscopical behaviour based on microscopical study and the monitoring of internal changes due to external changes. The SGIG team is a member of the Centre for X-ray tomography of the UGent (UGCT, and is therefore specialized in the application of X-ray technology for geological research. 

Groundwater modelling Group

The Groundwater modelling Group, led by professor Lebbe, studies the movement and quality of groundwater, as well as the interaction between groundwater and the sediments. Specific coastal research topics include the propagation of the tides, water quality in the Belgian part of the North Sea, management of groundwater extraction, warmth transport in the coastal region, and the impact of climate change on the hydrology of the coastal region. 

Laboratory Applied Geology and Hydrogeology

The Laboratory Applied Geology and Hydrogeology, led by professor Walraevens, studies the movement and quality of groundwater, as well as the interaction between groundwater and the sediments. Specific coastal research includes groundwater quality and  hydrogeochemical processes in aquifers in coastal areas, the exploitation of aquifers in coastal areas and the study of groundwater regimes in dunes in relation to the ecosystem.