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The Warsaw Voice » Other » December 2, 2009
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Green Education
December 2, 2009   
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A 19th-century building topped with a greenhouse in which barley ripens all year round-this is where the University of Silesia's Faculty of Biology and Environment Protection is headquartered not far from the center of Katowice. The faculty is marking its 40th anniversary this year and its Department of Genetics has 30 years of experience in growing experimental crops such as barley.

The faculty's research and teaching facilities include interdepartmental laboratories-among them a molecular biology lab, a molecular cytogenetics and image processing lab, an environmental biotechnology lab, and a plant biotechnology lab-equipped with special scientific instruments, classrooms and computer rooms with audiovisual equipment. Special premises and equipment are used for growing plants in artificial conditions. These include growth rooms, three phytotrons, greenhouses and an experimental field.

The growth rooms are used to grow plants, fungi and microorganisms. Each room reproduces any required conditions thanks to electronic control of temperature, light intensity and duration, and humidity. The faculty also has a growth room that is authorized to grow transgenic plants. Two greenhouses allow for maximum utilization of light and heat from the sun in creating the required microclimate. They are also fitted with electronic devices for heating, cooling and lighting as well as air exchange.

The experimental field occupies 4 hectares of land and is located in Boguchwa³owice, a village not far from Katowice. It includes a utility building with a post-harvest plant analysis lab and a barley gene bank. The experimental field is fitted with seed counters, threshers for single plants, a vacuum packing device to pack seeds, and refrigerators to store them.

The Faculty of Biology and Environment Protection comprises a Botanical Documentation Unit with a Scientific Herbarium. The facility contains about 120,000 specimens, including one of Europe's largest and best known collections of evening primrose-Oenothera L. (about 10,000 specimens). Ongoing work to expand the herbarium includes efforts to document the contemporary flora of the Upper Silesia region, in addition to documentation of subtropical floras, herbal collections from countries in Europe and South Asia as well as Spitsbergen, an island in the Arctic Sea. In 2005, the Botanical Documentation Unit joined the Polish Biodiversity Information Network (KSIB), which is part of a worldwide network called the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF).

Three courses
The University of Silesia's Faculty of Biology and Environment Protection provides three courses to students: in biology, biotechnology and environment protection. The biology course encompasses two specializations: general and experimental biology, and biology in environment protection. Biotechnology students can choose from two specializations: crop plant biotechnology and environmental biotechnology. The environment protection course offers four specializations: biological basis of environment protection, physicochemical methods of environment protection, geo-ecology, and application of advanced instrumental methods in environment monitoring and protection. The environment protection course is taught jointly with the Faculties of Earth Sciences and Math-Physics-Chemistry, enabling students to gain broader knowledge and take advantage of all three faculties' educational resources.

The system of studies includes a first-level course (Bachelor of Science degree) and a second-level course (Master of Science degree). A third level, Ph.D. studies in biology, is also available.

The Faculty of Biology and Environment Protection recently launched "Advanced Methods in Biotechnology and Biodiversity" Ph.D. studies, taught in English and financed under the "Universities as Partners of a Knowledge-Based Economy" project. The first 12 students began their studies here in the 2009/2010 academic year.

The faculty's students take part in many international exchanges under the European Union's LLP Erasmus program, which the faculty joined in 1998. Apart from being able to go on traineeships, students can study abroad for a semester or a whole year. The list of partner universities abroad includes 15 schools in the Czech Republic, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Germany, Norway, Britain and Italy.

At the moment, the University of Silesia has 17 bilateral agreements with other universities abroad that involve biological sciences.

From the start, the research topics at the Faculty of Biology and Environment Protection were determined by the faculty's location within the Upper Silesia industrial region. In response to the development of biological sciences worldwide, the faculty has made biotechnology of plants and microorganisms its second most actively developed field of research.

Four research areas
Overall, the faculty focuses on four key areas of research: environmental biotechnology; plant biotechnology and experimental biology; analysis of environmental changes in the postindustrial era; and the taxonomy, phylogenesis and phylogeography of selected groups of plants and animals.

The faculty's environmental biotechnology research focuses on the use of microorganisms in the processes of bioremediation of soil contaminated with hydrocarbons, pesticides and heavy metals and on seeking biomarkers of environmental stress. Experimental work concentrates largely on studies of bacteria and fungi whose huge biodegradation potential make them an attractive alternative for expensive and environmentally unfriendly physicochemical methods of eliminating organic pollution. Experiments are also carried out to study the biodegradation of synthetic and synthetically modified polymers used in making plastics. The practical goal of the research is to find microorganisms capable of quickly and completely decomposing environmentally harmful hydrocarbons, pesticides and plastics. Such microorganisms are used as the basis for biosubstances that could be introduced into the soil to reduce the concentration of these pollutants and their toxic impact. The search is also on for microorganisms that could improve the condition of soil polluted with heavy metals and those that could be used to separate heavy metals from industrial waste.

Research on plant biotechnology and experimental biology involves studying the structure and function of the plant genome, using molecular cytogenetics, functional genomics, molecular physiology and cell biology methods. Experimental work concentrates on model plant species Arabidopsis thaliana and Brachypodium pinnatum, as well as on different crops, such as barley (Hordeum vulgare), wheat (Triticum aestivum) and rapeseed (Brassica napus) and other Brassicas. The research projects include: analysis of changes in chromatin and chromosome structure during phylogenetic, ontogenetic and biotechnological processes; identification, genetic mapping and isolation of genes controlling plant growth and development; analysis of the expression of genes responsible for plant morphogenesis in vivo and in vitro; research on hormonal regulation of plant growth-especially under stress conditions; studies of the genesis and function of electric potential in plants; analysis of the role of symplastic communication and physicochemical cell wall changes in cell differentiation; and the mathematical modeling of plant organs' growth.

Environmental studies of postindustrial areas are conducted mainly in the Upper Silesia Industrial Region, though for reasons of comparison they often also include the entire South Macroregion of Poland. This extensive, specialist and multidisciplinary research aims to evaluate, with the help of model species and biological phenomena, how advanced the changes are in postindustrial ecosystems, analyze the potential for self-regeneration in the seriously disturbed biological equilibrium as well as assisting the process of reclamation of degraded areas.

Among other things, phenomena occurring in the soil of areas subjected to industrial impact are studied. Special attention is paid to research on cleansing mechanisms in soil polluted with metals, involving the plants growing there-metallophytes, and on the role of macrophytes in the self-cleansing of water reservoirs in the region.

When assessing the condition of the environment, it is important to determine the indicators of how plant and animal organisms connected through trophic chains function in a strongly changed environment, and particularly in an environment contaminated with toxic chemical substances. Research in these areas concentrates on looking for species useful in biomonitoring, including plants-such as bryophytes-and invertebrates.

The research field described as taxonomy, phylogenesis and phylogeography of selected plant and animal groups comprises taxonomy and chorology projects involving phylogenetic relationships within the Hemiptera order of insects at the family and suprafamily levels, explaining evolutionary processes and reconstructing the family history of representatives of the order Hemiptera on the basis of paleontological studies with the help of morphological, histochemical and molecular analyses. Special attention is paid to studies on the postglacial migration of plants in Central Europe, the genetic diversity of plant species on rangeland borderlines and the impact of environmental stressors on microevolutionary processes in selected taxa of vascular plants. Studies on inter-species hybridization in invasive plant species comprise another major topic.

In a recent achievement in biology research, a team of University of Silesia researchers led by Dr. Andrzej Wo¼nica from the Department of Biochemistry won an award at the 7th International Competition for Environment Protection Projects for their "Automatic biodetector of general toxicity of water-a tool for monitoring the presence of toxic substances in water." The University of Silesia received a first-degree award and was named a Master of Ecology.

Designing the future
The Faculty of Biology and Environment Protection pays a lot of attention to biotechnology. Its research and teaching potential in this area, however, is restricted by inadequate premises and infrastructure that comprises only two buildings set far apart from each other. This explains why, as it celebrated its 40th year, the Faculty of Biology and Environment Protection came forward with an idea to build a new research and education center called the Biotechnology and Biodiversity Center of the University of Silesia.

The aim is to enable Katowice biologists to become part of the global drive to develop biotechnological and biological sciences alongside other leading Polish universities and research institutes. According to the researchers involved, the University of Silesia's specialist laboratories and research facilities would make it possible to intensify the development of state-of-the-art research technology in genomics, bioinformatics, proteomics, and molecular phylogenesis and ecology. The Biotechnology and Biodiversity Center would continue the unique biodiversity research and develop methods for the biodetection of water toxicity, biodegradation of xenobiotic compounds and bioremediation of areas polluted with heavy metals and pesticides.

The center would comprise not only modern research and teaching facilities but also space friendly to the region's residents. The facility would serve as a venue for promoting environmental education and awareness. It would be open to the general public and teem with life on weekends when it would host exhibitions, lectures and various interactive projects.

The center in itself would be an environmentally friendly building, one that would rely on alternative energy sources and biological waste treatment systems. According to the designers, this type of building would play an educational role, showing the practical application of environmental and bioengineering technology such as solar panels, heat pumps, wind turbines, hydroponics, and small waste treatment systems.
Ewa Dereñ

University of Silesia Faculty of Biology and Environment Protection in Figures

• Number of full-time courses 3
• Overall number of students 1,388
• Number of Ph.D. students 70
• Number of teachers 137 (including 14 professors, 22 academics with postdoctoral degrees, and 80 Ph.Ds.)
• Number of graduates 4,417 (up to the 2007/2008 school year)
• Number of doctorates conferred 299 (up to the 2007/2008 school year)
• Number of postdoctoral degrees conferred 57
• Bilateral agreements signed by the University of Silesia involving biological sciences 17
• Number of partner schools abroad under the LLP/Erasmus program 15

Publications (as of 2008):
• monographs 83
• research papers published in science periodicals included on the Thomson Reuters Master Journal List (referred to as the "Philadelphia List" in Poland) 141
• publications in other periodicals 188
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