Water and soil microbial communities: from microbial ecology to bioremediation
Environmental microorganisms have a huge biotechnological potential that is actually underexploited, therefore researches in the field aim to fill this lack of knowledge. The research activities involve the application of molecular techniques and cultivation methods to characterize soil, seawater and groundwater microbial communities in pristine and polluted sites. Particular focus is on hydrocarbons, chlorinated xenobiotics, Arsenic and heavy metals contamination. The activity of natural bacterial strains is exploited for decontamination actions of soil, groundwater and industrial effluents.
Microbial diversity and ecology of symbiotic associations in human and animal hosts
The researches aim to understand the ecology and physiology of symbiotic associations between microorganisms and animals hosts, both vertebrates and invertebrates. One line of research concerns the study of gut microbial biochemical activity on compounds both endogenous (bile acids, cholesterol, mucin) or exogenous (dietary fibre, polyphenols) and the modulation of intestinal ecosystem composition by the administration of probiotics, prebiotics and poly-functional foods. Moreover, recently we study the effects of food-related engineered NANOparticles on the gut ecosystem.
Another line of research aims to deepen the knowledge on the relations established between microorganisms and arthropods and develop strategies to control pests or disease-transmitting vectors or to improve the health of beneficial insects, thanks to the exploitation of the microbial potential associated to the host. Of recent interest is the possibility to improve the weight of edible insects fed with organic waste.
Plant growth promoting bacteria
Plant growth promoting (PGP) bacteria are an invaluable resource for sustainable agriculture in conventional and extreme ecosystems. In particular, in soils subjected to drought, salt stresses and presence of organic and inorganic contaminants, PGP bacteria can be useful to implement an important strategy against desertification, while in contaminated soils they can help improve the effectiveness of phyto-and rhizo-remediation technologies. The research aims to i) characterize the microbial community associated with the rhizosphere of plants of interest, ii) evaluate in vitro and in vivo the plant growth promotion potential associated with the cultivable fraction, even in salt and water stress conditions and in contaminated soil.
Cultural heritage microbiology and biofilm prevention and disruption
Cultural heritage microbiological research includes the study of biodeterioration of the following materials: stone, frescoes, synthetic polymers and paper. In addition, microbiological measurements for indoor and outdoor air quality assessment are subject of investigation. Finally, a further topic is the use of microorganisms for the bioremoval of undesired compounds on cultural heritage surfaces.
Biofilm research is devoted to the study of bacterial and fungal biofilms at the solid/liquid and air/solid interfaces. Increasingly restrictive regulations limiting the use of substances hazardous to human health and the environment have resulted in several biocides being banned. The study focuses on the investigation of non-toxic environmentally-friendly compounds such as those produced by organisms (e.g. zosteric acid by Zostera marina) that interfere with microbial adhesion and intercellular communication.
Rural Heritage and sustainability of agro and environmental systems
The research is focused on rural heritage as cultural and territorial value. The investigation concerns three main aspects: designing farm buildings and landscape to determine how they can be restored and used; the sustainable development of rural systems in planning; managing of agri-cultural resources to assess the significance of rural heritage and to protect farmland and livestock systems in their technical, scientific and socio-cultural characters.
Our research focuses on plant diseases caused by fungi and bacteria on arable, horticultural and fruit crops, forest and ornamental trees and post-harvest diseases. We study genetic diversity of pathogen populations, their reproductive biology and disease epidemics as ways to improve disease management and optimize the use of fungicides in order to lower the risk of emergence of resistant isolates. We assess biological activity of chemical fungicides and natural compounds extracted from plants or produced by microorganisms and we actively search for microorganisms producing bioactive compounds to be used as biological control agents against fungal pathogens.
Integrated management of stored products insects
Different studies concerning stored product insects are carried out:
- Identification of natural repellents for pyralids moth and stored product beetles and evaluation of their activity with biological tests.
- Effect of maize lines differing in developmental and/or metabolic traits on the development of the most important stored products insects.
- The susceptibility of leaves and flour of Moringa oleifera to the attack of stored products pests is investigated.
- Idaea inquinata colonize dried vegetables. The identification of pheromones will improve the detection of this species in warehouses.
- Light filth analysis is carried out on semolina and pasta samples collected before and during the release of predators and parasitoids in semolina processing plant, in order to verify if biological control agents can affect the number of fragments in processed food.
- Researches on competition when different pests share the same diet and space are carried out.
- Relationships between beneficial microorganisms and one of the most important moth of stored products are investigated.
Integrated Pest Management of arable and fruit crops
The research activity involves the development of IPM practices for agricultural crops and beekeeping, in order to improve their ecological and economic sustainability in the frame of multifunctional agriculture. Both autochthonous and exotic pest insect are considered. The main field of interest are: 1) in-depth analysis for exotic species of the interaction with the new invaded habitat and the host plants, 2) the effects of anthropic interference on both honeybees and pest insects, 3) the development of sampling plans, habitat management tactics or direct pest management practices 4) the research of new biological control agents in order to deepen the knowledge on their biology and ecology, to develop rearing methods and protocols for their use in the field, 5) the development of mathematical models simulating arthropod life cycle.
These studies are aimed to improve the insights into population dynamics, to evaluate integrated pest management tactics and to provide decision support to growers, extensionists and policy makers.
Insect for bioconvertion of organic waste into animal proteins for animal feeding
Recently the interest in insects as sustainable-environmentally friendly alternative to conventional food and feed sources has grown. In fact insects have a high feed conversion index, require less spaces, water and energy for rearing and have a low emission of greenhouse gases. Insects can be reared on by-products or human waste as efficient bio-transformers to convert low-cost organic waste into animal biomass rich in proteins and other nutrients suitable for human/animal nutrition. In this contest, the research activity is focused on the standardization of the insect rearing (e. g. Hermetia illucens and others) breeding on different waste biomass and agroindustrial by-products. Different performances are evaluated concerning the bio-ethology, the capability in waste reduction, as well as the nutritional values of the insect meals. Of recent interest is the possibility to exploit the microbial potential associated to insects to improve the weight of edible insects as source of high value proteins for animal feed.
Biodiversity and global change
Macroinvertebrates are considered bioindicators of environmental quality in both terrestrial and freshwater systems, from glacial streams to Mediterranean rivers, from Alpine lakes to brackish water ponds, from natural systems as wetlands to agro-ecosystems as rice fields. Our researches are focused on biodiversity in natural- and agro-ecosystems. We used the expertise gained in identifying terrestrial and aquatic macroinvertebrates to monitor ecosystem modifications due to agricultural practices and the effects of climatic change and global warming on terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity. Natural and anthropogenic determinants of biodiversity are explored at several levels of biological integration, from the population to the landscape level, to investigate the influence of management on habitat structure and macroinvertebrates diversity.