Freshwater Science Group

Since 1988, the Freshwater Science Group deals with census, management and conservation of species, in particular with fish, related to Italian freshwater environments and with basic research on sexual differentiation in amphibians and asexual reproduction and ageing in annelids.

The team's experience is the result of twenty years of activity characterized by a comprehensive approach to ecological problems of freshwater environments and provides a vision of the whole, which is needed to develop the correct management and conservation policies.

Today Freshwater Science Group is working on research projects about:

  • Development and calibration of the NISECI index (New Index of Fish Community Ecological State);
  • discrimination on genetic and molecular basis of cryptic species of the genera Barbus and Salmo;
  • management policies for conservation of species of community and conservation interest, Cottus gobio and Austropotamobius pallipes;
  • population dynamics of amphibian - sexual differentiation of vertebrates;
  • asexual reproduction and aging of annelids;

In 2010, some members of Freshwater Science Group have founded HYDROSYNERGY University Spin-Off (, with the aim to create an ongoing and fruitful partnership with the university research group.

Freshwater fishes have a key role in monitoring activities for inland water ecosystems quality required by the Water Framework Directive 2000/60/CE. The directive, which was transposed in Italy by Ministerial Decree 260/2010, acknowledges the fishes as a Biological Quality Element (BQE) for inland waters and identifies in the NISECI index - Ecological Status Index of Fish Communities (Macchio et al. 2014) - the tool that must be used to its ecological assessment. NISECI provides a judgment on the environmental status of the fish community observed by assessing how this differs from the fish community reference theoretically present in natural conditions.

The Freshwater Science Group, in collaboration with ISPRA (Superior Institute for Environmental Reseach and Protection), ENEA (National Agency for New technologies, Energy and sustainable economic development), developed the revision of the index previously used in the country (ISECI) and to the subsequent elaboration of NISECI.

Currently, thanks to the collaborations with ARPAE (Agenzia Regionale per la Prevenzione, l´Ambiente e l´Energia dell´Emilia-Romagna), ARPAB (Agenzia Regionale per la Protezione dell'Ambiente della Basilicata), and with the University Spin-Off Hydrosynergy, the group is involved in:

  • refining of NISECI calculation parameters in fordable rivers, environments where the index has been widely tested in most national hydrographic basins.
  • Sperimentation of variations in the NISECI definition and of fish census protocols functional to non-fordable rivers, particularly the Very Large Rivers.

Besides the evolution of theorethical formulation and calibration calculation parameters, the grop also studies the issues of the autochtony/allochtony status of some ef the key species of the index.

Many taxa widespread on the national territory are subject to periodic review by the scientific community and there is no unique opinion on the checklist of native species of each Italian zoogeographical district. The nomenclatural divergences of the scientific community cause an ambiguity in the laws, misinterpretations in the national and community conservation strategies and problems with the application of NISECI. The genus Barbus taxonomy is controversial and unresolved, within the European distribution areal, in Italy too, there are several polytypic species able to hibridyze, subspecies and endemic species that show high phenotypic variability with meristic and morphological features overlapping. Genetic studies carried out on specimens of Italian barbel have failed to clarify the relationship between the different forms present on the national territory. The genus Salmo too is subject to constant taxonomic revisions and issues relating to the study of the genus are complicated by management and restocking activities with farming material, sometimes of uncertain origin, that affect our rivers for several decades. Currently in Italian freshwaters have been identified 5 different evolutionary lineages of Salmo trutta: Atlantic [AT], Danube [DA], marmorata [MA], Adriatic [AD] and the Mediterranean [ME]. All these issues require detailed molecular and genetic studies, to which the Freshwater Science Group approaches with analysis of mitochondrial and nuclear DNA.

The freshwater crayfish Austropotamobius pallipes and bullhead Cottus gobio are high conservation priority species, both included in Annex II of the EU Directive "Habitats" (92/43/EC) and currently they are suffering a demographic decline throughout the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines. With the LIFE project "Sci d’Acqua” the Freshwater Science Group has taken part in activities of conservation and repopulation of the populations present within the Regional Park of the Suviana and Brasimone Lakes. Freshwater Science Group, in collaboration with HYDROSYNERGY and the Authority for the Management of Parks and Biodiversity “Eastern Macroarea”, still working on the consolidation of different populations by semi-natural reproduction in hatchery and the subsequent reintroduction into nature of the produced specimens.

The study on the sexual differentiation of vertebrates is conducted on tadpoles of anuran amphibians as a study model to recognize early male-female differences, in genital bodies of tadpoles, through cytometry and histological, ultrastructural, and immunological techniques. The results obtained on the morphogenesis and gonadal sex differentiation of common toad (Bufo bufo) have allowed us to detect early differential elements of the gonadic ultrastructure in the two sexes; with such techniques bidderian oogenesis is been recognize too. Another approach consists in research, using molecular techniques, of the markers of the two alternative sexual differentiations. The expression of SOX9 during the various stages of gonadal and bidderian morphogenesis was investigated by in situ hybridization in collaboration with a group of geneticists at the University of Jaen (Spain), by applying to our model (Bufo bufo and anuran amphibians in general) research experience on the sexual differentiation of mammals.

Aeolosoma viride and Aeolosma hemprichi (Annelida Aphanoneura) are species with asexual reproduction known as "pygidial budding" although, as we have seen, could be described more accurately as " multiple paratomy with linear succession of the secondary zooid and terminal fission", then all individuals are genetically identical. For the two species were defined the main parameters of population dynamics and the observations continued on reproduction, regeneration, formation of chaetigers, morphology and karyology. It 'was also observed that such Annelids are able to react to the various experimental conditions by increasing or decreasing the lifespan and number of produced filial chains. These parameters are quantifiable for which these animals represent a useful model to test, in vivo and in relatively short time (two to three months), the effect on aging, of the experimental treatments (e.g. with antioxidants or caloric restriction).

National collaborations
Dott. Mauro Cesarini, BiGeA; Prof. Barbara Mantovani, Prof. Marco Passamonti, Dott. Federico Plazzi, Laboratory of Molecular Zoology (MoZoo Lab), BiGeA; Prof. Marialetizia Fioravanti, Dott. Andrea Gustinelli, Department of Veterinary Medical Sciences (UNIBO); Prof. Moreno Paolini, Dott. Donatella Canistro, Department of Pharmacy and Biotechnologies; Prof. Luca Valgimigli, Department of Chemistry “Giacomo Ciamician”; Dott. Gianluca Zuffi, Dott. Andrea Marchi, Dott. Stefano Sacchetti, Hydrosynergy SC, Environmental Monitorfing and Applied Ecology, S. Lazzaro di Savena (BO); Dott. David Bianco, Ente di Gestione per i Parchi e la Biodiversità Macroarea Orientale (BO) Regione Emilia-Romagna; Dott. Achille Palma, Dott. Gaetano Caricato, ARPA – Agenzia Regionale per la Protezione Ambientale – Basilicata; Dott. Donatella Ferri, Dott. Daniela Lucchini, Arpae - Agenzia Regionale per la Prevenzione, l´Ambiente e l´Energia dell´Emilia-Romagna

International collaborations:
Prof. Monica Bullejos, University of Jaén, Spain