Six new projects in Open Programme Earth and Life Sciences

31 October 2018

In September 2018, two committees considered a total of 56 applications in the Open Programme Earth and Life Sciences. The domain board decided to award six projects funding. These projects concern grassland systems, tropical forests, diatoms, "cutting and sticking" in pathogens, repair mechanisms against DNA damage, and unknown parts of the human genome.

Prof. G.B. De Deyn, Wageningen University and Research
Plant combinations for climate change mitigation
Nitrogen fertilizers promote productivity but also lead to emissions of the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (N2O). At the same time there is growing interest in the potential role of plant diversity in intensively managed, climate-smart agroecosystems. In this research we will reveal how combinations of plant species with different characteristics can optimise nitrogen use and limit N2O emissions also when subjected to extreme weather events of flooding. This research will thereby provide unique insight into how traits of plant communities couple responses to climate change (flooding) and effects on climate change (N2O emissions).

Prof. P.A. Zuidema, Wageningen University and Research
Tropical forest responses to CO2 rise: looking backwards to better predict future effects
Both deforestation and climate change threaten tropical forests. The adverse effects of global warming can partly be mitigated by an increase of CO2 in the atmosphere. Extra CO2 increases photosynthesis, reduces water consumption and encourages tree growth. However, it is not known how strong the theoretical effects are. This research concerns the effects of CO2 enrichment in the past measured via the annual growth rings of tropical trees. These annual growth rings contain valuable information about changes in photosynthesis, drought stress and growth during the past century. The results can be used to improve tree growth models to provide a better estimate of the future effects of CO2 enrichment on tree growth.

Dr D.B. van de Waal, Netherlands Institute of Ecology
When nature strikes - Species extinction or adaptation?
Climate change threatens the biodiversity on Earth. Ancient lakes, such as Lake Ohrid in the Balkans, have a high biodiversity and a 1.4 million-year-old natural "archive" of fossils in the lake floor. The analysis of diatoms (microscopic plants) from these lake floors reveals how quickly and strongly the species changed with climate fluctuations in the past. We will expose these diatoms for hundreds of generations to future conditions, therefore higher temperatures and more nutrients, to gain a better understanding of this evolutionary process. The results will give us a better understanding of the development of algal species and enable us to predict which algal species will adapt and which will become extinct.

Dr E.J.A.M. Sijts, Utrecht University
Signalling intracellular infection: a potential major role for proteasome-catalyzed peptide-splicing
How does the immune system know whether there is a pathogen in a cell? We thought we knew the answer: cells break down the proteins of pathogens and show the fragments to the immune system. Recently, however, it was discovered that the enzymes for protein breakdown not only "cut" but also "stick", and that about 30% of the protein fragments in a "normal" cell are a "cut and stick" product. This project will investigate the underlying mechanism and the importance of "cutting and sticking" in proteins of pathogens during an infection. The results will give us a better understanding of how the immune system recognises a pathogen and will also contribute to the development of new vaccines.

Dr W.J. Lans, Erasmus MedicalCenter
A simple model for complex DNA repair disorders
products of the respiratory cycle of cells. DNA damage inhibits the normal functioning of cells. Cells therefore use specialised repair mechanisms that remove DNA damage. If a repair mechanism becomes defective due to heritable mutations, then this can lead to grave illnesses with complex symptoms. This project will use the simple roundworm C. elegans to investigate the complex causes of these diseases.

Dr V. Guryev, University Medical Center Groningen
Functional characterisation of non-reference segments in human genomes
Our genome contains a trove of information about our disease susceptibilities. However, predicting the functional effects of DNA variants remains challenging, especially for large or complex alterations. Even worse, a substantial part of our genome has not been mapped yet and we are still missing millions of letters when we decode the genomes of patients. In this project, we will put this missing part of the genome back on the map. We will also integrate DNA, RNA and protein information to learn how these uncharacterised genome regions affect biological functions. That will enable us to improve personalised predictions of health risks.

Source: NWO