Awards in first round NWO Open Competition - XS

11 November 2019

The Board of NWO Domain Science has awarded 17 applications definitively in the NWO Open Competition Domain Science - XS. The maximum funding is 50.000 euros per project. The XS category emphatically strives to encourage curiosity-driven and bold research involving a relatively quick analysis of a promising idea. As a pilot, applicants are also an assessor in the XS assessment process.

Awarded applications

Time for killing: do malaria parasites have a (circadian) clock?  
Dr. R.C. Bartfai, Radboud University
Malaria parasites have a complex lifecycle involving a mosquito and a human host. Several observations suggest that they synchronise their development with the daily rhythm of the hosts, yet there is no evidence for a circadian clock being operational in the parasite. This project aims to detect oscillating molecular signatures indicative of a circadian clock, an essential starting point to understand how such clock function. Furthermore, we will test the effect of a ‘jetlag’ on spreading of the disease. These initial insights could transform our understanding about the biology of malaria parasite and advise strategies to combat a deadly disease.

Understanding the Basic Mechanisms of the Social Brain. An Electrophysiological Study of Social Interactions in the Ferret
Dr. C.A. Bosman Vittini, University of Amsterdam
Social interactions permeate all aspects of life. When two people are interacting, neuronal signals in their brains become synchronized. However, the mechanisms of interbrain synchronization are not known. The aim of this study is to unveil these mechanisms at the neural level and to understand how the interbrain synchronization modulates cortical activity during social behavior. I will implement simultaneous electrophysiological recordings in interacting animals in a novel animal model of social interactions. This project will help to understand the brain mechanisms governing social behavior.

Efficient and flexible platform to isolate and study bacteriophages
Prof. dr. A. Briegel, Leiden University
Viruses that infect bacteria (bacteriophages) are promising agents to combat antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections. Bacteriophages have been used successfully to save lives in the past. However, the isolation, identification and characterization of suitable bacteriophages is time-consuming and can require several months to compile appropriate bacteriophage mixtures. The aim of this project is to dramatically improve the efficiency of this process by developing a microfluidic platform to parallelize testing the performance and characteristics of pure, mixed and environmental bacteriophage samples. The platform will be cost effective, using a minimal amount of sample and equipment and be broadly accessible to many laboratories.

IDEAL –viral-mediated advanced algal production platforms
Dr. S. D'Adamo, Wageningen University & Research
To stop the spread of future epidemics in humans and animals, and meet the increasing global demand of protein therapeutics and vaccines, new safe, flexible, rapid and low‐cost manufacturing technologies are required. IDEAL aims to explore microalgae in combination with viruses that infect them as a system for the production of vaccines and protein therapeutics. If successful, the availability of such technology is expected to advance the biotechnological field by exploiting the huge potential of microalgae as solar-based production platforms, and to provide a more sustainable and safe solution for human and animal health.

Remotely sensed plant resilience
Dr. I.C. Dedoussi, TU Delft
The way plants respond to changing environmental conditions (e.g. temperature) is not well understood, and current experimental approaches to address this are limited in scope, and expensive. We propose to challenge this situation by synergistically merging concepts from atmospheric science, plant science, and machine learning to calculate first-of-their-kind environmental resilience metrics for different crop types. To do this, we will employ long-term satellite vegetation and meteorological datasets as well as supercomputing resources. Results will provide unprecedented data of crop-specific responses to changing environmental conditions, paving the way for the improved scientific understanding of plant response to the changing climate.

Enlightening the blind spot: how do plants see green?
Dr. C.M.M. Gommers, Wageningen University & Research
Plants are able to differentiate colours of light through various photoreceptors. They use this information to maintain their leaves in the best light-catching position when competing for sunlight with neighbouring plants. Green light wavelengths are reflected by surrounding leaves and trigger a ‘shade escape’ growth response in plants. A lot is known about the perception of blue, red, far-red and ultra-violet light, but how exactly plants are able to see green light remains a blind spot in plant science. My goal is to find the green light photoreceptor.

Photovoltaic engines
Dr. E.L. von Hauff, VU Amsterdam
How do solar cells work? Despite many advances in the field of photovoltaic research in the last years, some researchers still do not agree on the fundamental principles of photovoltaic energy conversion. New theoretical insights from other research fields suggest that solar cells must be considered as dynamic engines, which include a “piston” or “rachet” to drive the photocurrent. In the XS I want to demonstrate dynamic signatures on model photovoltaic cells using sophisticated scanning probe measurements. My long-term vision is that these insights can be used in the design of novel, efficient photovoltaic cells.

Plastic in the air?
Dr. R.H. Holzinger, Utrecht University
Recently, scientists detected plastics on snow in regions as remote as the Polar ice sheet. How does the plastic get there? We hypothesize that nanoplastics float in the air– just as aerosols. In the air plastic particles are transported over large distances and eventually deposit on the snow. We aim at confirming our hypothesis by quantifying nanoplastics in the air with two innovative technologies that extend the sensitivity of standard methods by approximately two orders of magnitude. If our hypothesis proves correct, humans are exposed to these plastics through inhalation with unknown health risks and potentially other environmental impacts.

Development of vascularised human kidney tissue in an animal free model
M.J. Hoogduijn, Erasmus University Rotterdam
Kidney disease is affecting 10% of the world population and treatment options are limited. Novel technologies make it possible to generate mm-size kidney tissue from stem cells, so called kidney organoids, which are promising tools for drug testing, disease modelling and kidney repair. However, the current generation of kidney organoids has reached its limits in terms of size, maturation status and life-span due to a lack of blood flow through the organoids. We aim at achieving long-term culture of mature kidney organoids by using an organ-on-chip platform developed by BI/OND that allows oxygen and nutrient-rich perfusion of kidney organoids without using animal models.

Light-activatable molecular machines
Dr. ir. J.H.G. Lebbink, Erasmus University Rotterdam
In this project the scientists will develop a new biochemical toolbox that allows very precise activation of protein function. The scientists will achieve this by evolving a protein pathway that will enable to build in a lightactivatable building block in any protein of interest. This research has enormous potential for studying important biological processes.

Motifs in three-dimensional tomographic imaging
Dr. T. van Leeuwen, Utrecht University
Tomographic imaging provides detailed insight into the nature of things in many fields of science; from the interior of distant stars to the structure of cells or nano-crystals. We are usually interested in detecting certain structural motifs in the object. In this project we aim to develop novel tomographic reconstruction techniques that detect and exploit such motifs. If successful, this will lead to a step-change in image quality. The results are expected to be directly applicable in several applications, allowing for new breakthroughs in the respective fields of science.

Direct observation of rarefaction shock waves in organic fluids
Dr. B.H. Mercier, TU Delft
The goal of this project is to provide a breakthrough in the understanding of the complex flows occurring in next-generation Organic Rankine Cycle turbines. ORC systems are an effective technology for energy harvesting, but the margin for improvements is still large and a drastic increase of the turbine efficiency will make their economy more viable. In particular, a non-classical gas dynamic phenomenon called rarefaction shock wave may play a significant role, although it has not been proven experimentally yet. For this project, a new experimental technique for the investigation of rarefaction shock waves will be developed.

Quantum leaps in universal quantum computer simulation
Prof. dr. M. Möller, TU Delft
Quantum computing is a disruptive technology that will change the way we will be solving computational problems in the coming decades. Since physical quantum computers are still rare, simulators are used to develop new quantum algorithms, but their capabilities are limited due to excessive memory demands and computing times. This project will explore a new paradigm for the efficient simulation of many-qubit quantum algorithms. It develops custom number systems tailored to the needs of circuit-based simulators to reduce memory consumption and exploit the full power of modern computers. Its applicability will be demonstrated by implementing a proofof- concept open-source simulation framework.

Controlling flow-driven vascular network organization: switching from internal flows to external flows
N. Salehi Nik, University of Twente
Adding vascular network to engineered tissues is an important step for the clinical application of these tissues. However, in order for such networks to perform, they need to have a physiological organization. This proposal hypothesizes that fluid flow shear stress on the outside of a vascular network can control vascular organization. To test this hypothesis, a transparent artificial eggshell with which directed fluid flow pattern can be applied, will be used in a chick embryo model. When the hypothesis holds true, the results of this project will provide us with an extra tool to control vascular organization in engineered tissues.

Frequency-Domain Dedispersion
Dr. J.W. Romein, ASTRON
Searching for pulsars and fast radio bursts in radio-astronomical observations requires enormous amounts of compute power, because the traditional algorithm searches the parameter space in an inefficient way. We propose to explore a new idea, by searching in the frequency domain rather than the time domain. This method seems an excellent match for new tensor core technology of graphics processors (GPUs). This technology allows the latest generation of GPUs to perform mixed-precision matrix multiplications 8–16 times faster than previously. If this hardware/software co-design approach is successful, much more data can be processed and correspondingly more sources can be detected.

How do proteins fold in a cellular environment after all?
V. Sheikhhassani, Leiden University
Proteins are linear molecular chains that need to fold to specific shapes to function. Measuring the folding of a protein is a tedious task as the protein folding dynamics happens on a short time scale and involves transient intermediate states, that are left unnoticed in standard bulk biochemical assays. Optical tweezers, a technique recently recognized by a Physics Nobel Prize, has revolutionised the field by enabling real-time monitoring of the folding processes. However, the physics community has till now focused on studying proteins in artificial buffer. Despite producing interesting physics, how proteins fold inside cellular environments remains a mystery!

Using microfluidic droplets to study predictability of evolution
Dr. J.A.G.M. de Visser, Wageningen University & Research
The question when and where evolution is predictable receives growing attention from researchers, due to its major implications for our health and wellbeing. Population size has been suggested to affect predictability by affecting the number of available mutations and by allowing natural selection to efficiently filter out the best ones. In this project, we will explore the predictability of antibiotic resistance evolution in very small populations of bacteria. A state-of-the-art droplet-based millifluidic system will be used as ‘evolution machine’ to perform highlyreplicated evolution experiments, which will be combined with genome sequencing to determine the level of parallel molecular changes.

Source: NWO