Sixteen groundbreaking research projects launched through second round NWO Open Competition - XS

18 December 2019

The Board of NWO Domain Science has awarded 16 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. The themes vary from research into creative social robots, whether predators can reduce tick-borne diseases to measuring nanoplastic in ocean waters.

Metabolic status of the metastatic niche
Dr Ahmed Ali (UL)
Cancer spreads when a migrating cancerous seed (metastatic niche) seeds in a new soil (tissue), a phenomenon termed metastasis. The initial seed, or the metastatic niche, is extremely small and will only grow if its needs are satisfied in the new environment. The metastatic niche requires food to metabolise and generate energy for growth. Little is known about this critical process from a metabolic point of view. Here, we aim to develop and use new technologies to measure the metabolic status of a tiny metastatic niche!

Heliorhodopsin as a novel protein-sensor for voltage imaging
Dr Daan Brinks (TUD)
Electrical pulses traveling along the membrane of neurons carry information in our nervous system. Being able to visualize these electrical signals would provide into exact way neural computations influence what we do, think, feel and experience. This project proposes a new type of protein to achieve this visualization. In the project we will test a newly discovered protein for voltage sensitivity, speed and spectral characteristics and try to understand if and how we need to change it to make it into a voltage sensor that can show us brain dynamics.

Can predators reduce tick-borne diseases?
Dr Helen Esser (WUR )
Predators play key roles in intact ecosystems and help maintain biodiversity. Recently, it has been suggested that predators may also reduce tick-borne diseases. Most tick-borne diseases are caused by pathogens that reside in rodents. Rodents, in turn, are important prey for predators. By killing and frightening rodents, predators could potentially reduce the density of infected ticks. However, no study has so far experimentally tested this hypothesis, or uncovered the underlying mechanisms. In this study, I experimentally test whether and how predators affect tick-borne disease transmission, thereby considering both existing and novel hypotheses.

Chemosynthesis as a significant secondary energetic path in coastal food webs
Dr Jim de Fouw (RU)
Photosynthesis is presently the main process fuelling life on Earth, and considered the virtually sole source of primary production in most ecosystems. However, 3.8 billion years ago, early life derived its energy mainly from chemosynthesis, a process still fuelling life in the deep sea and other sunlight-deprived systems. In this project it is hypothesized that, in addition to photosynthesis, chemosynthetic primary production is a major, but overlooked, secondary pathway fuelling shallow sea food webs. This project will begin to test this paradigm-challenging idea in six temperate to tropical seagrass ecosystems around the world.

Do cancer cells have a thermodynamic Achilles’ heel?
Prof. Matthias Heinemann (RUG)
For still unknown reasons, cancer cells operate their metabolism in a very wasteful manner. We hypothesize that they do this because of a thermodynamic limit, which was recently uncovered in microorganisms. By means of a computational model, we will investigate if the limit governs cancer metabolism and if we could attack cancer cells in this thermodynamic Achilles’ heel.

A fantastic voyage, one molecular machine at a time
Dr Iddo Heller (VU)
Synthetic molecular machines and nanorobotics are no longer science fiction: we can now make nanometer-sized motors and devices that are driven by light (Nobel prize 2016). But how can we truly understand and optimize machines that are simply too small to see? This project will scrutinize nanomachines in action in the same way we study macroscopic machines: grab individual motors and probe and record their motions in the finest detail! To demonstrate the exciting range of possibilities this new single-molecule approach unlocks, researchers will augment DNA-based systems with synthetic machines and take the first steps into nanorobotics and nanomedicine applications.

Creative social robots with evolutionary AI for dementia therapy
Dr Anahita Jamshidnejad (TUD)
More than 50 million people worldwide suffer from dementia, a brain disease resulting in memory loss. Given the high costs and complexity of personalized care for dementia patients, social healthcare robots are increasingly being used. While recent research shows that creativity in therapeutic actions significantly improves symptoms of dementia, existing techniques that steer social robots rely on predefined and learned tasks, and lack creativity. The aim of this project is to develop a novel evolutionary artificial intelligence approach, combining fuzzy logic and genetic algorithm techniques, to design creative social robots that can be used in therapy for dementia patients.

Development of 3D in-vitro healthy and diseased neurocircuits
Dr Nicholas Kurniawan (Tue)
A hallmark of various neurological disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, and schizophrenia, is the abnormal changes in the functional interconnectivity of the brain’s neuronal circuitry. These changes are notoriously difficult to study, since measuring and manipulating network interconnectivity in living brains with cellular resolution remain a major challenge. This project wants to develop an in-vitro model of healthy and diseased human brains with directly measurable 3D network activities, using a novel method of creating brain organoids. Establishing this model will enable not only mechanistic dissection of the complex pathophysiological features of network disorders, but also systematic testing of new treatment regimes.

Optical control of cyclic nucleotide breakdown via light-sensitive molecular switches
Prof. Rob Leurs (VU)
Optical control of biological processes is one of the holy grails in biology as it is non-invasive, dynamic and can be applied very locally. This XS-proposal aims to design, synthesise and evaluate light-switchable inhibitors of cyclic nucleotide phosphodiesterase PDE5, to allow such spatial-temporal control of this key regulator of cellular signalling. These tools will be synthesised and studied with respect to photochemical properties and their ability to show different biological activities upon photo-isomerization. Ultimately, suitable tools will allow to study the effects of local PDE5 inhibition in e.g. skin disorders, colon cancer and heart failure.

Green Tactics for Robotics Software
Dr Ivano Malavolta (VU)
From autonomous vehicles, to healthcare, and even in outer space, robots are part of our daily life. Energy is a critical factor for robotic systems, especially for mobile robots where energy is a finite resource (e.g., urveillance autonomous rovers). However, despite the advances in electronics and mechanics, one of the main barriers in robotics is software, since it is becoming massively large, complex, and difficult to measure. The project will break this barrier by allowing roboticists to design energy-efficient robotics software via experimentally-validated green tactics. Green tactics will emerge by mining millions of lines of code of realworld robotics software.

Nanoplastics: hormone-mimicking and inflammatory responses?
Dr Dusan Materic (RU)
Plastics are one of the most commonly used materials, with an annual production of 359 million tonnes worldwide. As most of the produced plastics end up disposed, they fragment and form microplastics (pieces <5mm). Further weathering of microplastics causes the formation of nanoplastics (particles <1μm). Unlike microplastics, nanoplastics can enter biological systems by passing the cell membrane barrier and cause harmful effects inside the cells. In this work, we will use human cells (in-vitro) to study how nanoplastics of different type and degradation stages affect the hormonal and inflammatory response inside human cells.

How much nanoplastic is in the ocean?
Prof. Helge Niemann (NIOZ)
Floating micro and macro plastic in the ocean only make up for one percent of all the plastic that has ever entered the ocean. Where is all the rest? One possibility is that the plastic has fragmented into sub-μm sized nanoplastics, but these are difficult to detect. Using an innovative technology, we were able to measure nanoplastics in coastal waters and hypothesize that a substantial fraction of the missing plastic in the ocean is in the form of nanoplastics. This project is aimed at confirming our hypothesis by measuring nanoplastic in ocean waters and sediments across the Atlantic and the North Sea.

Defining the regulatory circuit that drives early development of virus-transmitting mosquitoes
Prof. Ronald van Rij (RUMC)
Complex organisms are composed of a wide diversity of cell types, tissues, and organs, yet they all emerged from just a single fertilized cell. The very first steps in this developmental process are similar between different animal species, however, they can differ greatly at the molecular level. Early embryonic development has not been studied in the mosquito Aedes aegypti that is responsible for transmission of important epidemic viruses. In this project, the researchers will unravel genes that are essential for early development of this important mosquito species.

Microfluidics for Amyloidosis studies
Dr Vittorio Saggiomo (WUR)
Amyloids are misfolded proteins associated with more than 30 different, sometimes fatal, diseases, spanning from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases to Diabetes and Rheumatoid Arthritis. In this project we will develop microfluidic devices for studying the formation and disassembly of amyloids. The outcome of this research will shine a light both on the amyloid diseases and on its prevention and cure.

Climate change mitigation through novel halo-autotrophic pathways: CLIMATIC
Dr Irene Sanchez Andrea (WUR)
The simultaneous elimination of the two most important greenhouse gases, CH4 and CO2, has been completely disregarded in research. However, we recently isolated an strain from the genus Halomonas (considered heterotrophic to date) which grows on solely CH4 without releasing CO2. This halophile releases ectoine, a valuable osmoprotector. CLIMATIC aims to reveal the novel metabolic pathways that allow the simultaneous transformation of CH4 and CO2 into compounds with a high market-value, such as ectoine (1.800 € kg-1). The discovery of this novel metabolic pathway will have major implications for fundamental microbiology, but also from an industrial and applied perspective.

Novel peptide therapeutic to fight kidney stones
Dr Jenny van der Wijst (RUMC)
Kidney stones affect around 1 in 10 people worldwide. It can be treated, but recurrence rates are high (>30%) resulting in increased risk of chronic kidney disease. An improved, possibly preventive treatment is needed. Our research aims to develop a novel drug to prevent kidney stone formation, based on our body’s calcium regulation. Calcium, obtained from our diet and essential for i.a. bone, can precipitate in our kidneys. This may lead to crystal formation, and ultimately kidney stone development. We propose to stop this process and prevent stone formation by local calcium buffering in the kidney via an original peptide-drug.

Source: NWO