Zachary Dellacqua

2 April 2021


Growing... fish?

This reaction is all but commonplace when discussing aquaculture with the layman. We have all heard of growing wheat, tomatoes, and grapes. Viticulture has already established itself as a high-end classy take compared to the imaginative archetype of a traditional cattle farmer (think rodeos and gunslingers). This time however cattle farming is old-hat (pun intended), sea-farmers on the other hand…this is something new: hip, inspiring, and all too complicated.

Zach pic 3

First of all, lets correct my previous statement, aquaculture is not ‘brand-new’; but the branding is undoubtedly new. Our story begins with traditional koi carp farming in Asia, skipping on to the ancient Greek, Phoenician, & Roman Garum production (fermented fish sauce), all the way to the modern industrial salmon farming in Norway, Scotland, and Chile. As wild fisheries continue to dwindle in the face of anthropogenic pressures wailing onwards with better machinery and netting used to scrape up the few remains of edible sea-delicacies; the modern-age farmers must step-up their game and build sustainable futures for their industries. We have admittedly crossed the Tiber, our forebearers have left anoxic dead zones just for that 5-star caramelized-onion almond-encrusted salmon and uprooted mangroves slashing the habitats and eroding the villages just for you to gulp down those Jumbo shrimps while sipping on an icy cocktail with a lemon-squeeze. Now though, as I mentioned at the start of this paragraph, the branding must change. Branding first, then action…fittingly within the best interest of the markets. As global environmental conscientiousness rises, so does the weight of our pocketbooks…for all that is organic, natural, low-footprint, and very very tasty. We are now branding sustainable seafood grown from caring farms armed with ecological advisors, fish vets, and a team of biologists checking on everything from the spread of feces in the water to the parasitic load in the fishes’ stomach. However idealistic and gung-ho this sounds the truth is that we are quite naïve and need to put in a lot of time, money, and brains. The fish farming industry lags behind, but they are not giving up.


New technologies at the forefront of the industry offer a promising future and thorough research fashioned from years of study is now yielding remarkable results. To name just a few of these innovations there is RAS (Recirculating Aquaculture Systems) offering the ability to grow aquatic animals out of the sea thus not subjecting natural habitats to the stressing noise and pollution of industrial farms, in fact these systems can be built theoretically anywhere offering ideal solutions to inland areas and communities short on healthy protein options. Then there is Bio-floc which enables a natural growth of biotic assemblages as a feed supplement in the water. Next there are critical improvements to animal welfare in which science has been used to suggest the best-practice and guess what! The best-practice was much less invasive for the organisms, a prime example of this is shrimp eyestalk ablation (which was the traditional way to trigger spawning…by removing the eyestalk), well it seems that this harm to the animal may not be all that necessary (


In my research we are looking to reduce the development of skeletal diseases in fish, and wow…let me tell you…they have a lot of them. When first culling the fish (checking manually for signs of disease) I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of deformed individuals passing through my hands; however, once you enter that last number into an excel spreadsheet and start looking at the graphs…Tah Dah!…trends begin to emerge. This is no magic, and many a layman may be weary of scientific advancements in biotech, but there are clear tools that science can offer to improve long-term sustainability. And as I previously said the aquaculture industry (at least in developed countries) has already signed up for the ‘sustainability’ trial.

Zach pic1

I may be a bit biased, but I think it will pave a way for future industries as they start to realize the long-term economical, ethical and environmental improvements offered by branding fish farming with the sustainability ticket and pairing us researchers, geared up, ready for the challenges. We are a long-way away from the biotech savvy of the modern cattle-farmers; however, we might just be starting with a leaping stride and an eye-on-the-prize attitude enabling us to clear those hurdles every step of the way.

Zach pic 2


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Claudia Di Biagio

1 March 2021


Biomedaqu: what it's all about

Communication is a tremendous challenge for scientists and researchers.

Pic Claudia blog - start

(Picture from the video, "Drawn to Science: Zebrafish - a new model for drug discovery"

As bachelor/master students, we have pleeenty of lectures and maaaany exams (and parties, and beers… as you all likely know). As PhD students we are so overwhelmed – how can we possibly find the time to communicate? As a Principle Investigator perhaps… well let's not kid ourselves, PIs are always busy (please, don’t take me too seriously). However, if the scientific community does not communicate, OTHERS will do so. This is not always very informative, not to mention… substantially prone to biases. If my current thoughts are: “there is no atmosphere on Mars”, “climate change does not exist” or even “everyone should take chloroquine to fight against COVID”, then I suppose that scientists really should take the proper time to explain their true findings.  

Therefore, I decided to take some time to tell YOU exactly what our network BIOMEDAQU is all about: what we are doing, our aims and our challenges.

As you have possibly read in other posts, we are a network of 15 students, working in different fields – biology, engineering and business. Our focus is to tackle the problem of skeletal diseases, in both aquaculture and biomedical research. This might seem a little confusing at first… Imagine you are going to the supermarket to buy seabream, seabass over smoked salmon. They do look nice and are quite tasty. But did you know that many of their siblings (even up to 70% of the seafood production) suffer from skeletal anomalies? This means that some of their bones are deformed. For example: their vertebral column could be deviated or the shape of their head could be quite ugly. First of all, these anomalies have a strong impact on the fish’ health. Secondly, fish cannot be further processed using industrial machinery, for example the blades required to make fish fillets.  

One of the principle aims of our network is to understand what factors have an impact on the development of such deformities. These include their genetic background (that is what they inherit from their parents), the available nutrients provided in commercial feeds, and the environment in which they are reared. We thoroughly study the effects of different nutrients such as minerals, vitamins and fatty acids. Attention is also given to the rearing method. For instance, studying the effects of having thousands of fish in a smaller tank compared to fewer fish in a “wild-like” environment.

Hopefully, while collaborating and working together, we will be able to establish better practices for the aquaculture industry to obtain healthier fishes. So far so good – but what does all this have to do with diseases that affect humans? Well, in spite of their external appearance, fish and humans have many derived similarities. You may be thinking: “and many differences…”, but scientists love models. Therefore, we input that fish are optimal models for the human skeleton. Of course, there are better models. However, when we weigh the pros/cons it is evident that fishes are very useful and practical. This is because the basic structure of the skeleton, the cells and the way these cells are organized and “work” together, is reasonably similar. With that said, all of the biomedical team members of BIOMEDAQU are using fish models (zebrafish or medaka) to help understand the molecular mechanisms at the base of specific diseases, such as osteoporosis and vertebral column deviations. Although bone is solid, suggesting the idea of a stable and inert structure, it is actually subject to constant changes. There are cells that “build”, others that “break down” bone and even others that “chaperone and coordinate” with other cells, as well as cells that “sense” changes in the environment. It is reasonable to imagine that if one group works more than the other, we would have more bone or less bone. We might also imagine that if bone is formed in the wrong place, specific functions cannot be carried out properly. Therefore, we try to understand which changes happen within the cells, their function and their organizational structure that yields specific diseases.  

Back to scientific communication – scientists are often a little stubborn and it’s not easy to take them out of the lab. But YOU should also challenge them. Don’t be shy, ask questions, participate in scientific events, follow interesting pages of scientific communication – you’ll see… it truly can be quite fun, just give it a shot! 

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Ali Kiai lowres 

Ali Kiai

20 January 2021


Strange end to a Strange year

It has been a strange end to a strange year. If one had asked me back in 2019 what I would have expected of 2020, I would never have answered a worldwide pandemic, a complete breakdown of the world economy, societal lockdowns and social distancing, and an even more rampant spread of conspiracy theories. From the very beginning, many had compared the COVID-19 pandemic to the 1918 flu pandemic. Though some comparisons may have been exaggerated and have luckily not occurred, the prediction that outbreaks of COVID-19 would occur in waves has been all too true. I expected as much back in August when the number of cases in Germany were low and Germany was highlighted as an example for how a Western country can overcome and control the pandemic. Indeed, looking at the number of cases now in December 2020, it is very clear that despite all the precautions and hard work of the German people, it was not enough to immunize Germany against a worse and more widespread second wave.

The German government has responded in force, enforcing a lockdown of public gatherings, many entertainment venues, and even in-doors sports. The timing could not have been worse. December is a special time in Germany. Christmas is a special time in Germany. It is a time in which Germany cities are transformed into beautiful Christmas cities. City streets and stores are covered in Christmas ornaments, the city centres are bountiful of people having a good time, doing their Christmas shopping and soaking up the atmosphere. And the absolute highlights of December are the famous German Christmas markets. These are always jam-packed with people coming together at one of the many Christmas stands to drink traditional Christmas market drinks such as Glühwein, to try out the Christmas market foods, buy Christmas decorations, and simply enjoy the amazingly warm and inviting atmosphere. I have been fortunate enough to have experienced this joyful, beautiful, and highly entertaining Germany back in December 2019 and it was an easy way to forget the cold December weather. The same has unfortunately not been true in December 2020. The stark difference has been obvious. The city streets are comparatively empty, many decorations are absent since stores are all closed, and the Christmas markets are prohibited. Even the Christmas snow is missing in Münster. The Christmas atmosphere of Germany has been broken.

Fortunately, I have been able to work during this second wave. December is a busy month at work. In general, we want to finish our experiments, leave the facilities in a neat and tidy state, and ensure everything is organized for the holiday break. This puts pressure on the amount of time we can dedicate to our experiments, but just as any other month of the year, I want to do as many experiments and about as much work as any other month. It is not only a time to finish work and prepare for the holiday break, it is also a time to plan ahead for the next year.

Though I can’t divulge what I am doing as far as experiments are concerned, I can say that I am currently working with a team of my graduate school CiM-IMPRS of Münster to organize a conference called the Graduate School Meeting, GSM for short, for 2021. It is a yearly conference in which experts from a variety of fields give talks about their research and expertise knowledge. Also, students from the CiM-IMPRS show poster presentations and discuss their research with the attendees. Last year we had speakers from the field of molecular biology, nanotechnology, and regeneration, among many others. Every year, a new team of students of CiM-IMPRS are tasked with arranging everything for it, from the venue to the speakers to the date and technical operations. It is a great opportunity to acquire experience in creating such a conference, it helps to learn new people on a more personal level, and it gets people engaged with the graduate school. It is something I am very much looking forward to working on, and after a year as down and disastrous as 2020, with no end in sight of the pandemic for the near future, it is great to have this GSM to look forward to.

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ESR7 Javier Cantillo lo res 

Javier Cantillo 

9 July 2020

Doing a PhD during COVID-19 times – Some useful ideas for working from home

At the beginning of last year, I started my enrolment as an early stage researcher for the BioMedAqu project, and in consequence, I also started my PhD in Sustainable Aquaculture and Marine Ecosystems at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain. For me, this meant many “first times” that represented important challenges in my life: the first time I left my family home and lived by myself, the first time I lived abroad in a new country and continent, the first time I participated in a project where the main language is different from my mother tongue, among others, and if all these challenges were not enough, another unexpected one was added this year: the COVID-19 pandemic.  This situation has affected everyone around the world, and as PhD students, apart from getting used to quarantine periods and social restrictions, we also need to address the challenges that come with our research. This has put us in a position where we have had to adapt to this new reality and even try to take advantage of the opportunities it offers.

Given the uncertainty of the current circumstances and despite the improvement of the COVID-19 situation in Europe and Asia, there is no guarantee that new outbreaks of the virus could re-emerge and force us to face home-working again. I would, therefore, like to share some of the recommendations that have been useful to me in these strange times and that may be useful to people in general and, in particular, PhD students and researchers, in the event that home-working is needed in the future again:

1. Organize your activities: the most difficult thing about home-working is probably to organize your daily activities and, in particular, to separate your work periods from your relaxation periods. You must program yourself with the start and end time for all your activities, just as you usually do when you go to your office or workplace. Also, do not forget to find time for your hobbies and passions and, of course, to have fun, as the popular phrase says: "Time spent having fun is a well-spent time". So “have fun during research”.

2. Learn something new: I recommend four different options for this case but have in mind to adapt them to your special interests:

  • Increase your skills in Excel: Microsoft Excel is probably the common software for data analysis and increasing your skills may help you to make your daily tasks easier or even expand your capabilities.
  • R Programming language: R is a free-use language and environment for statistical computing and graphics. It allows you to create algorithms that perform functions that are not possible to do with other software, especially if you manage a large amount of data. It also allows you to create your own applications.
  • QGis: Geographic information systems software enables information to be correlated with their respective spatial locations, which is commonly useful for spatial analysis. QGis is a free option of these type of software that is constantly being updated and that have many independent developers who frequently develop and add new packages and applications to the program.

3. Learn a new language: adding a new language to your curriculum will add a wide range of future career opportunities. It would also allow you to expand your cultural knowledge, given that languages are usually very closely linked to the cultural development of the regions where they are spoken. Exercise! Home-working is usually associated with a sedentary lifestyle, which does not necessarily have to be the case. Always try and find time to do some exercise at home. Gym equipment is not needed at all. There are a lot of exercises in which your body weight is enough to achieve your goals. There are a large number of mobile applications that could help you plan your daily exercises.

4. Keep calm: this is probably one of the most important advice I can offer you. It is normal to feel anxious with all the implications of the situation, but keeping your mental health is key to overcoming these difficult times. Remember that it is important to keep yourself informed of the recommendations made by national authorities to avoid possible infections, but it is not necessary to keep up-to-date on the rates of infection every hour. This may increase your anxiety to an unnecessary level. Also, try not to read information from non-official sources that might give you false or irrelevant information. Finally keep in mind that, as with other pandemic situations, this one will pass as well.

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ESR11 Silvia Cotti pic low res 

Silvia Cotti 

14 October 2019

Using Micro CT for bone analysis

I’ve always heard about Micro CT (Micro Computed Tomography) and its powerful scanning capability but this was the first time I’ve ever seen the instrument in action with my own eyes!

Last week I’ve attended the specialist course in High-resolution X-ray computed tomography organized by the Doctoral School at Ghent University: a three-days full immersion to deeply understand the physics and working principles behind the Micro CT.

Using X-rays, Micro CT enables to get 3D image of the internal structures without damaging the sample. It’s a high resolution technique, able to identify radio-dense tissues even in small samples, such as the skeletal elements of the miniaturized zebrafish! I had the possibility to visualize and analyze the 3D reconstruction of my small fish, looking at the vertebral bodies like I had never done before.

ESR11 Silvia MicroCT

How great and impressive can the data analysis be with such a powerful imaging technique? I’m developing skills in using the software and analyzing the data obtained from the scan, can’t wait for the results!

For more information about the course, please visit the following website:

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Lucia Drabikova 

4 September 2019


Life of a Modern Nomad

Residing in a foreign country and gradually making it my own is nothing new to me. Originally coming from Slovakia, I have lived and studied in California, England and Scotland. Each and every experience, enriching and terrifying at the same time, made me feel like jumping at every opportunity lurking behind an imaginary corner. And so I jumped - and began a new chapter by moving to Belgium as a BIOMEDAQU doctoral student researching skeletal deformities in fish.

We cooperate with industrial partners and many leading researchers from around the world. This is one of the greatest assets of this project. Students, supervisors and partnering organisations meet twice a year at different locations that are a part of the BIOMEDAQU network. These events feature both theoretical and practical classes, disseminations of preliminary findings, and discussions on imminent issues and future collaborations. Fortunately, we also get to eat and have fun from to time ;). It goes without saying that finishing the day off in a pub is by far the best way to cement relations. 

Besides attending summer schools, we all participate in secondments away from our home institutes to perform practical and analytical work. I have already fulfilled several weeks of practical work in Norway. Helping with research in the coastal city of Stavanger opened the door to further cooperation with my project´s industrial partner. To be exposed to both academia and the industry at such early stages is quite an eye-opening experience. We constantly explore debates and sound arguments to find solutions that please both parties. Personally, I find this partnership very useful since my future plans include close collaborative efforts with aquaculture partners.

ESR12 Lucia pic for blog 1

Such cooperation naturally results in frequent transfers between countries and requires quick adaptation. And it seems that my travel times are not over just yet. Work related trips often go hand-in-hand with distressing moments that exhaust your battery. But they also offer the opportunity to explore new environments, people, history, culture…. After all, the life of a PhD student is not just about lab work. Wherever I go, I try to find time to hike, sightsee, explore, relax and enjoy. Ultimately, this is one of the biggest perks of being part of BIOMEDAQU - creating life-long memories.

ESR12 Lucia pic for blog 2 

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ESR10 Jerry Maria Sojan low res

Jerry Maria Sojan

31 July 2019


Workshop at CCMAR, Faro, Portugal

I am currently at CCMAR in Faro doing my first secondment from July 3rd until August 10th. Here are some pictures of me (ESR10),  Alessio Carletti (ESR9) and  Sunil Poudel (ESR13) during the workshop at CCMAR from July 15-17 on " Zebrafish Tools for the Screening of Osteogenic Compounds".
IMG 8646 resized IMG 8585 resized IMG 8568 resized IMG 8564 resized IMG 3068 resized


I am having a wonderful time in beautiful Faro and all thanks to Paulo Gavaia who organised my secondment at CCMAR in the best way possible! The lab group here is wonderful and very helpful.

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ESR3 Caroline Caetano pic hi res

Caroline Caetano

26 March 2019


1st Summer School, Gran Canaria, Spain

Photo of ESRS at SS1 - Biomedaqu - Copy

Hi, I am ESR3 (early stage researcher 3), also known as Caroline.

Last week we had the chance to participate to the first Summer School in Gran Canaria, Spain, from our project BioMedAqu.

The idea of this summer school was to discuss about our projects, do networking, plan collaborations and our secondments, also, it was important for us to learn more about skeleton in fish, skeleton anomalies, bone compositions, bone development, aquaculture, nutrition, new techniques and fish welfare.

Before this great Summer School organized by Professor Marisol Izquierdo and the new Dr. David Dominguez, from the ECOAQUA institute and Universidad de las Palmas de Gran Canaria, we only knew each other by photos and e-mails. It was a good surprise to meet everybody. I believe that more than collaborations and high impact papers we are also going to make good friends in this three years ahead of us.

It was an intensive week, with lectures, practical lessons, project discussions, presentations, snorkeling, lunches and dinners.

Professors, students and collaborators were really accessible, I think that by the end of the week I had talked to all of the participants. With this, many ideas came up for my project, some possibilities of collaborations and secondments.

I learned a lot during this week, as an ESR that only had worked with zebrafish, it was fascinating to see a huge facility with different species and sizes of fish, as well the large production of artemia, rotifers and algae.

During the morning we had lectures uttered by experts, that were open to answer all our questions, and, in case that we were out of time, we could talk to the speakers during the lunch. We had lunch together every day, which made it easier to talk about science in an informal way. Furthermore on the last day of week we had to present our own projects, it was a challenge for some of us, maybe because still not so confident to give a presentation in English, or just that regular stress to talk to an audience, but by the end of the day everything were fine and we had our closing dinner with awesome local food.

I think I can say for all ESRs that we are looking forward to the next summer school that is going to be in Rome, next September, besides to see everybody again, and have great food, we are going to meet 3 new ESRs that couldn’t attend this first one.

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