Press Release


How Ship Emissions Adversely Affect Lung Cells

In the course of industrialization, emissions of exhaust fumes from combustion processes that adversely affect our lungs have increased. Especially inhabitants of coastal regions suffer from the particle emissions from ship engines. In a large-scale cooperative project, researchers of Helmholtz Zentrum München, Technische Universität München (TUM) and the University of Rostock have demonstrated for the first time exactly what effect these particle emissions have on the cells in the lung and how the various fuels differ from each other. The findings of the researchers have been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

emissions from ship engines

Source: Fotolia / Paul Vinten

Until now, little has been known about how ship emission particles affect the metabolism of human lung cells and which chemical and physical properties are responsible for certain reactions of these cells. To elucidate these open questions, the research team led by Prof. Dr. Ralf Zimmermann, researcher and speaker of the international consortium Helmholtz Virtual Institute of Complex Molecular Systems in Environmental Health (HICE), launched a large-scale measurement study with a marine diesel engine used for this special purpose: “As fuel we used heavy fuel oil or normal diesel fuel,” said Dr. Sebastian Öder, first author of the study. He described the experimental setup: “In a mobile lab, we directly exposed lung cells to the respective exhaust fumes in diluted form.”

Unexpected Cellular Responses to Diesel Fuel Emissions

Both fuels triggered significant cellular stress responses: While the heavy oil emission particles mainly led to responses eliciting inflammatory processes, the cells reacted to diesel emission particles with a very strong and broad response.“Surprisingly, there was a stronger cellular response upon exposure to the ‘clean’ diesel fuel, which was shown to emit somewhat more soot but a significantly lower content of known toxic compounds than heavy fuel oil,” Öder said. Overall, the researchers found that diesel exhaust fumes impaired important cellular metabolic pathways, such as energy metabolism, protein synthesis, chromatin modifications* and cellular transport processes. They discovered changes both in gene expression as well as in the concentrations of important proteins and metabolites. In further studies, the scientists want to clarify in more detail the role of diesel exhaust soot.

“As a practical measure, we furthermore recommend reducing the emissions of fine particles from ship exhaust fumes – independent of the fuel used and analogue to road traffic – through the installation of filtration devices,” study leader Zimmermann said, adding a warning: “The measure taken so far to reduce exhaust fumes, namely to replace heavy fuel oil with diesel fuel (marine gas oil, MGO), was shown in our results to be insufficient to reduce acute adverse health effects.

Further Information

*Chemical changes in the DNA which may affect the activity of the genes.

Original Publication
Oeder, S. et al. (2015). Particulate Matter from both Heavy Fuel Oil and Diesel Fuel Shipping Emissions show Strong Biological Effects on Human Lung Cells at Realistic and Comparable in vitro Exposure Conditions, PLOS ONE, Volume 10, e0126536

Link to the Original Publication

As German Research Center for Environmental Health, Helmholtz Zentrum München  pursues the goal of developing personalized medical approaches for the prevention and therapy of major common diseases such as diabetes mellitus and lung diseases. To achieve this, it investigates the interaction of genetics, environmental factors and lifestyle. The Helmholtz Zentrum München has about 2,300 staff members and is headquartered in Neuherberg in the north of Munich. Helmholtz Zentrum München is a member of the Helmholtz Association, a community of 18 scientific-technical and medical-biological research centers with a total of about 37,000 staff members.

Technische Universität München (TUM) is one of Europe’s leading research universities, with around 500 professors, 10,000 academic and non-academic staff, and 36,000 students. Its focus areas are the engineering sciences, natural sciences, life sciences and medicine, reinforced by schools of management and education. TUM acts as an entrepreneurial university that promotes talents and creates value for society. In that it profits from having strong partners in science and industry. It is represented worldwide with a campus in Singapore as well as offices in Beijing, Brussels, Cairo, Mumbai, and São Paulo. Nobel Prize winners and inventors such as Rudolf Diesel and Carl von Linde have done research at TUM. In 2006 and 2012 it won recognition as a German "Excellence University." In international rankings, it regularly places among the best universities in Germany.

Contact for the media :
Department of Communication, Helmholtz Zentrum München – German Research Center for Environmental Health (GmbH), Ingolstädter Landstr. 1, 85764 Neuherberg - Phone: +49-(0)89-3187-2238 - Fax: +49 89-3187-3324 -  

Scientific contact at Helmholtz Zentrum München:

Prof. Dr. Ralf Zimmermann, Helmholtz Zentrum München - Deutsches Forschungszentrum für Gesundheit und Umwelt (GmbH), Kooperationsgruppe Comprehensive Molecular Analytics, Ingolstädter Landstr. 1, 85764 Neuherberg - Phone: 089-3187-4048 -