Research Topics

ILEE combines a large panel of competences in fundamental, applied and social sciences enabling a significant contribution to understand the evolution of life. To face current and future environmental challenges, we search for sustainable solutions, integrating ecological, technological, socio-economic and historical/cultural perspectives.

Evolution, Adaptation and Biodiversity

Since four billion years, life on earth has been evolving and changing in response to environmental changes.
Species arise, disappear, expand and adapt - it is a ongoing arms’ race with fluctuating biological diversity.

Today, environmental change is often driven by human activities such as pollution, nutrient enrichment, climate change or habitat modifications. Organisms need to cope with new conditions, acclimate and adapt, with consequences for community composition and biodiversity as well as ecosystem functioning at different spatial scales.

At ILEE, we combine ecological theory with models, field data and experimental setups to address these questions. We also focus on a mechanistic understanding of biological processes using physiological, behavioural, proteomic and epigenetic indicators. Evolutionary processes, sexual and asexual reproduction are investigated at population level (experimental and natural ones).
Environmental DNA is an innovative tool to monitor biodiversity or analyse the distribution of a virus in the population. e-biom is a spin-off at the service of biological monitoring.

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Pollution and Environmental Toxicology

Various chemical, biological and physical agents have detrimental effects on living organisms.
One of the most urgent tasks conserve biodiversity and ecosystems is to identify, evaluate and finally control and avoid toxic agents that harm living organisms and our environment.

Multiple stressors (chemical, physical or pathogenic stress) and/or pollutants (pesticides, pharmaceuticals, endocrine disruptors, neurotoxins, atmospheric residues) impact on individuals but also on ecosystems. Research at ILEE spans from single molecules (analysis of gas composition, functioning of membranes) over organisms (responses of physiological, immune, nervous or reproductive systems) to ecosystem functioning.

At ILEE, the development of specialised instruments for molecular spectroscopy as well as bioinspired materials provide technological innovations. Aquatic organisms (fish, crustaceans and amphibians) serve as bioindicators under natural or experimental conditions to study immune and organismic phenotype responses (assessed at the gene expression level). Conceptual studies resulting from mathematical models are combined with specific case studies based on experiments with plankton in microcosms.

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Characterization and Management of Natural Resources

Only the responsible use of natural resources guarantees their supply for future generations.
Non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels or raw materials from the subsoil are exploited much faster than they can be replaced. Soil elements are found in a large variety of objects we use every day. Smartphones, solar panels etc. contain rare-earth metals or minerals. If not done responsibly, the extraction and processing of such elements cause heavy environmental problems.

By prospecting these geological resources (water, metals and raw materials) and integrating human utilisation over centuries, from antiquity to the electronic age today, ILEE contributes to the understanding of the relationships between natural resources, architecture and art. This is a first step to improve their sustainable management. The sustainable, environmentally friendly and economically efficient cultivation is equally desired for renewable resources, for example in aquaculture and aquatic ecosystems.

Photo credit: UNamur / Geoffroy Libert

ILEE focusses on petrography, mineralogy and geochemistry of supergene ores, as well as the mapping and modelling of aquifer and karstic flow processes. Research further opts for the sensible productivity of cultured freshwater species but also for the restoration of aquatic ecosystems including the conservation of endangered species (salmon and eel). The quality of surface water is traced with ecological indicators such as diatoms and macro-invertebrates.                                                                                                                                                                                                                 
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Ecosystem services

The various benefits that ecosystems provide to humans freely are known as ecosystem services.
One can distinguish four different types of ecosystem services (ES):
  • Provisioning services including the supply of food, raw material (wood, biofuels, etc.), water and medicinal resources
  • Regulating services such as the regulation of air quality and soil fertility or pollination
  • Supporting services that provide habitat for species or maintain biodiversity
  • Cultural services that are non-material benefits to humans providing recreational, touristic or spiritual activities and inspiration

The concept of ES stems from a strong sustainability framework and its first aim was to help preserve biodiversity. Today, it is increasingly used to foster sustainable landscape management and planning, to increase well-being of local actors.

In order to achieve this, inclusive integrated valuation frameworks are developed. These frameworks combine different types of values (social, economic, biophysical), and include local stakeholders in a participatory way. A key focus at ILEE lies on the issue of social valuation of ES, assessing trade-offs and synergies between ES and actors to improve local ES governance.
Methodological approaches include ES mapping, modelling, and integrated ES assessments.

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Sustainable Plant and Animal Production

Looking for alternatives of chemical and pharmaceutical products is essential to face the challenges in plant and animal production.
Pesticides, fertiliser or antibiotics are widely used in agriculture with all negative consequences concerning environmental and health problems we are facing today.  

Pathogens (e.g., viruses, bacteria, parasites, and fungi) cause high mortality rates are a major problem leading to tremendous economic losses in plant and animal production. Research at ILEE aims at the search for alternative solutions to control diseases and sustainably improve the performance of plant crops in agriculture and fish in aquaculture.

Plant molecular studies focus on phytopathological aspects of signal transduction as well as on elicitor molecules that stimulate plant defences against both biotic and abiotic stress. These elicitors are of biological origin and offer an environmentally friendly alternative to increase resistance of plants against pathogen attacks. A spin-off company was created pursuing this purpose - FytoFend S.A.

In aquaculture, special emphasis is put on the search for alternatives to the use of antibiotics and chemicals through immuno-stimulation methods, the replacement of fish meal and fish oil by plant ingredients the optimisation of animal husbandry to improve fish welfare. Research is conducted on temperate (Eurasian perch, pikeperch, trout) and tropical (striped catfish, African catfish, tilapia) species.

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Environmental Impacts on Human Populations

Populations are dynamic - Understanding and measuring these dynamics is important for disaster response, economic planning and controlling epidemics.
Many interactions exist between the environment and human population dynamics. Global warming and climate change will probably cause tremendous migration in the future.

Droughts, land use, environmental and health risks influence the distribution of human populations and their migration. Groups of differing vulnerability react differently to certain hazards. Spatial scales and geographical contexts (Burkina Faso, Senegal, Ecuador, Philippines, etc.) further influence population dynamics but also disease risks. 

The focus of our research lies on the interaction between environment and migration at the household or individual level, as well as on the interactions between the different agents responsible for the transmission of vector-borne and zoonotic diseases (humans, vectors, animal hosts and the environment). We use innovative methods (resilience indicators, game, focus groups, census, etc.) to capture the high complexity and integrated approaches to spatial issues in epidemiology.

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Environmental History and Law

Since man arrived on earth he began to influence and alter his environment.
Urbanisation and industrial revolution probably had the most severe impacts on nature in history. A collection of laws, regulations, agreements etc. governs how humans interact with their environment.
The focus of environmental history studies lies on the perception of human impacts on urban and rural areas through urbanization, industrial exploitation and pollution between the 18th and the 20th century. Further emphasis is put on the pollution of rivers and the relationships between men and animals. Research on socio-historical aspects relate to the history of the local products (“produits du terroir”). The geographic scope is Belgium / Europe but also the South (Democratic Republic of the Congo, Philippines).

Research on environmental law concentrates on its beginnings and sources, exploring the mobilized principles and their development over the last decades. Since European Law plays a significant role in the question of environment, an international perspective is privileged.

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Environmental and Natural Resource Management in the South

ILEE collaborates with partners located in Southern countries: Africa, Central and South-America and South-Eastern Asia.

Research focus is put on the following topics:

  • Characterization and sustainable management of natural resources
  • Production of aquatic ecosystems and the sustainable development of aquaculture
  • Impact of environmental changes on human populations
  • Environmental history (natural disasters such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions)

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