Major boost for curiosity-driven research in the physical and natural sciences

47 million euro for 20 projects NWO Open Competition Domain Science

24 February 2020

In the programme NWO Open Competition Domain Science - GROOT, 20 new consortia will start a large research project. This boost of more than 47 million euros will make new research possible into, for example, the early phases of metastases in tumours, artificial turbulence created using smart particles, the unknown properties of the Higgs boson, osteoarthritis and nanoplastics.

At the start of the new Domain Science in 2017, there was a demand among researchers for substantial project funding in the open competition. This concerns curiosity-driven, non-programmed fundamental research. NWO Domain Science has therefore set up an open competition with three successive levels of funding: XS, KLEIN and GROOT. Grants within the NWO Open Competition Domain Science – GROOT programme are intended for consortia in which research groups create added value through collaboration.
In this first funding round of NWO Open Competition Domain Science – GROOT a total of 92 pre-proposals were submitted. Thirty consortia were allowed to further elaborate their proposal. The domain board has now awarded 20 project proposals funding, as a result of which an award rate of 21.7 percent was achieved. Half of the domain-wide selection committee consisted of women and four of the consortium awarded funding have a female main applicant.

Project awards

Higher Order Topological Nano Devices (HOTNANO)
Prof  E.P.A.M. Bakkers, Eindhoven University of Technology
This project focuses on new manifestations of topological matter. On the fundamental side, we will realize a novel class of materials, in which we induce a transition from a topological crystalline phase into a higher-order topological phase. As for applications, we will investigate whether Majorana quasiparticles and parafermions form on the interface between the higher-order topological material and a superconductor. Such quasiparticles can serve as building blocks for topological quantum computation.

Resolving the fundamental building principles of the genome
Dr R.T. Dame, Leiden University
It is increasingly becoming clear that the spatial structure of DNA within a cell is of crucial importance for its function. All DNA-based processes (reading, copying, repair) are tightly interconnected with the three-dimensional organization of chromosomes. Here, we will investigate the basic fundamentals of chromosome structure across all domains of life (in bacteria, archaea and eukaryotes), as well as the interrelation between the chromosomal structure and gene activity, from the test tube to live cells. These studies aim to unravel the design principles of chromosomes and uncover how genome architecture can impact on the establishment of transcriptional programs in health and disease.

Optimization for and with Machine Learning (OPTIMAL)
Prof D. den Hertog, Tilburg University
Machine learning has often made  headlines in recent years, with spectacular applications such as image recognition and self-driving cars. A key component of this technology is mathematical optimization, that is used, for example, to train the underlying neural networks. The goal of this project is to provide new analysis and tools for optimization problems and algorithms arising in machine learning, but also to use insights and tools from machine learning to improve optimization methods. We will test our insights on classification problems in the medical sciences, decision problems related to the UN World Food Programme, and routing of shared, self-driving cars.

Single Cell Analysis of Animal Development
Prof S.J.L. van den Heuvel, Utrecht University
The cells of our body all contain an identical and complete manual for our life processes and body functions. Despite this identical genetic information, cells develop in highly divergent directions; some remain stem cells while others become, for instance, specialized neurons or muscle cells. How does a cell decide which direction to take? A team of world-leading researchers with divergent expertise will collaborate closely to answer this question. Starting from detailed molecular characterizations of individual cells in developing tissues, a predictive computer model will be created, which ultimately will reveal opportunities for improved tissue regeneration and cancer treatment.

The Active Matter Physics of Collective Metastasis
Dr E.H.J. Danen, Leiden University
During the early stages of metastasis, clusters of tumor cells combat a series of hurdles to dissociate from the primary tumor, navigate complex surrounding tissues, and enter the circulation in order to reach distant organs. In this program, we map this journey by integrating theoretical models with experimental cell biology, biophysics, and tumor biology. We aim to identify the physical/mechanical parameters that regulate collective behavior of tumor cells during these first steps of the metastatic cascade, and deliver insights for rational design of new therapeutic intervention strategies.

Pacing the heart; studying the underlying principles of biological pacemakers
Prof V.M. Christoffels, University of Amsterdam
Many people suffer from a too slow heartbeat, because the natural pacemaker, the sinus node, does not function well enough. This project investigates the basic principles of the structure of a robust and regularly functioning sinus node. With the new knowledge we will build a pacemaker from human stem cells. We will study the development and function of the sinus node in fish and mouse. We will test the new insights using mathematical models. In the future, we hope to be able to repair defective sinus nodes using gene therapy. The cultured pacemakers made from stem cells will be useful to study slow heartbeat and to test new medicines. 

Shaping turbulence with smart particles
Prof F. Toschi, Eindhoven University of Technology
Shaping turbulence with smart particles - Can we design turbulence?
Turbulence, the ubiquitous state of fluid motion, has a strong tendency towards homogeneity and isotropy at small scales. Employing ‘smart’ particles, capable of affecting the smallest scales of the flow, we explore how to generate ‘designer turbulence’.

At the heart of the Higgs
Prof W. Verkerke, NIKHEF
The Higgs boson, discovered in 2012 at the European center for particle physics (CERN), has a key role in the Standard Model of elementary particles. Because the Standard Model theory leaves a number of important questions unanswered, we know that a new more fundamental theory must manifest itself at higher energies. In this search for 'new physics' the unknown properties of the Higgs boson play an an important role . This research proposal describes how a consortium of Higgs experts will perform a series of innovative and highly complex measurements to measure these properties that will place in them in a leading role in the world-wide hunt for new physics.

Nanoplastics: Origin, Structure and Fate
Prof B.M. Weckhuysen, Utrecht University
Troubling images, showcasing the large amount of plastic litter that contaminates our waters and threatens wildlife, have become a regular focus of the popular media. Not everyone realizes that we cannot account for a very large fraction of the plastic that escapes into the ocean. A significant portion of this “missing plastic” is hypothesized to result from the degradation of plastics and are named nanoplastics. A multidisciplinary team will now use a breakthrough approach to investigate the formation, presence, and distribution of nanoplastics in aquatic environments. They will study size, structure, and composition of nanoplastics, their transport across the ocean, as well as their interplay with and impact on the Earth’s aquatic microbiome. The reactivity of nanoplastics will also be assessed, allowing to investigate potential degradation pathways, including those involving microbial interactions.

Unraveling Neural Networks with Structure-Preserving Computing
Prof W.H.A. Schilders, Eindhoven University of Technology
Machine learning using neural networks is bringing a revolution to our daily lives, automating highly complex tasks such as speech recognition or automotive transport, and is also making its way into the simulation of phenomena in physics, chemistry, astronomy and biology. For the latter, it is essential to better understand neural networks to enable the design of highly efficient, tailor-made neural networks built on top of and interwoven with properties of the underlying science problems. The resulting deeper understanding of neural networks from mathematical, physical and astronomical point of view is vital for future developments in this rapidly developing area.

Driving quantum phase transitions in topological correlated matter (TOPCORE)
Dr E. van Heumen, University of Amsterdam
Breakthrough technologies in our modern day, digital society are closely connected to ever-improving control over the electrical properties of materials. Researchers of 6 Dutch Universities are teaming up to kickstart a new field of research, with the goal to develop novel materials they change their electrical or magnetic properties strongly under small perturbations such as pressure, temperature or applied electric field. To achieve this goal, the TOPCORE program combines groundbreaking ideas from the mathematical field of topology with experiments and theoretical investigations of recently discovered materials.

Unwiring beneficial functions and regulatory networks in the plant endosphere
Prof J.M. Raaijmakers, NIOO
Plant roots are colonized by billions of microorganisms that affect plant growth and tolerance to (a)biotic stresses. Recently we discovered that plants infected by fungal pathogens actively recruit microbes inside their root tissue, the endosphere, for protection. Here we will investigate how plants under siege communicate with their microbiome and characterize the protective endophytic microbes, their genes and metabolites. With nano-microscopic techniques we will unwire where microbes live inside plant roots and express their protective traits. The obtained fundamental knowledge will provide a strong basis for developing innovative strategies that integrate microbiomes in plant breeding and sustainable crop protection.

Guardians of protein disorder
Dr L.M. Veenhoff, University Medical Center Groningen
Intrinsically disordered proteins are proteins that lack persistent structure. They fulfil essential functions in cells, but are also involved in aggregation pathologies such as Parkinson’s disease and ALS. Intrinsically disordered proteins can exist in different phases, such as a liquid droplet, a gel or a more rigid form, an aggregate. The goal of this research is to reveal what mechanisms exist to ensure the intrinsically disordered proteins exist in the right phase state to perform their biological function and to prevent disease. By studying how these transitions are guarded, we think we will contribute to a better understanding of aggregation pathologies.

Self-Assembled Icosahedral Photonic Quasicrystals with a Band Gap for Visible Light
Prof A. van Blaaderen, Utrecht University
Photonic crystals are important for many research areas and applications because they enhance the interaction of light with matter in an unprecedented way. Here we plan to make both periodic and quasi-periodic photonic crystals by using colloidal self-assembly, an inherently scalable and inexpensive approach. These crystals will have a so-called photonic bandgap for visible light, the equivalent of an electronic bandgap for electrons. The study of such structures, and how they can influence light, will not only provide new fundamental knowledge about quasicrystals but will also have applications in e.g. data manipulation, lighting, sensing and photocatalysis.  

Single Cell Microgel embedded iPS-cells to map molecular variability of cell differentiation using a systems biology approach (SCI-MAP)
Prof I. Meulenbelt, Leiden University Medical Center
To alleviate the burden of age-related chronic diseases, such as osteoarthritis, there is an urgent need to direct regeneration of tissues. In this respect, human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS-cells) are anticipated as a game-changer. IPS-cells can make, on demand, any required tissue. However, creating tissues using iPS-cells is currently an uncontrollable, heterogeneous process, which hampers clinical application. SCI-MAP is designed to map and understand key modifiable factors that direct and maintain iPS-cell differentiation into stable, tissue specific, cells. Knowledge acquired within SCI-MAP will pave the way for development of effective regenerative therapies in osteoarthritis and beyond.

Organoids in time
Dr J.S. van Zon, AMOLF
Our intestines do more than we think: in addition to absorbing nutrients they also make important hormones and suppress infections. However, these crucial functions have remained obscure because the cells responsible are rare and turn-over rapidly. In this project a breakthrough is made by combining mini-intestines with immune cells and microorganisms, which makes it possible to directly follow their dynamics by microscopy. With this approach, we will be able to elucidate how these cells work together, and make it possible to test drugs outside of the patient. This is important for phenomena as diverse as obesity, immune diseases, bacterial infections, allergies and depression.

Nanoscale regulators of photosynthesis
Prof R.G.M. Croce, VU Amsterdam
Plants depend on sunlight for their energy supply. With the use of an ingenious antenna system they use this light very efficiently but in bright sunlight the chances to induce photodamage increase substantially. Fortunately, plants can cope with these dangers with the use of a special protein called PsbS. However, it is completely unknown how this protein does its job. A broad consortium of plant biologists, chemists and physicists team up to investigate with advanced experimental and theoretical methods how PsbS can recognize the danger and set in motion a cascade of processes that lead to efficient photoprotection.

Crossing over from the quantum world to the classical world and back
Prof T.H. Oosterkamp, Leiden University
What is a measurement? Quantum mechanics led to a revolution in our understanding of nature and in practical applications. Despite this progress there remains the question of how the classical world emerges from the underlying quantum physics. This research project aims at providing experimental input to this fundamental question by studying macroscopic quantum superpositions.

State and fate of Antarctica’s gatekeepers: a High Resolution approach for Ice ShElf instability (HiRISE)
Dr B. Wouters, TU Delft
Antarctica is the single largest unknown in the current projectons of sea level rise. For a large part, this is due to the uncertainty of how ice shelves will evolve in a changing climate. To reduce this uncertainty, we combine field measurements, satellite data and climate models to chart the current state of Antarctica’s ice shelves with high resolution and accuracy. This knowledge will then be exploited to improve our estimates of how the stability of the ice shelves will change in the coming centuries, in which way this impacts the ice loss of Antarctica and what this implies for water levels at the Dutch coast.

Coupled multi-process research for reducing landfill emissions (CURE)
Dr J. Gebert, TU Delft
Worldwide, landfilling of waste remains is still an important aspect of solid waste management. Long-term emissions of landfill gas to the atmosphere and dissolved contaminants to the groundwater are the result of bio-geochemical reactions acting on the landfilled wastes in the waste package. In this project, fundamental research will be conducted regarding the relationship between the conversion of waste organic matter and the emissions of pollutants in the context of a full-scale field trial into the sustainable aftercare of three Dutch landfills. The research will lead to methods that enable sustainable management of contaminated sites, thereby minimising emissions of contaminants to the environment and reducing the time over which society has to actively manage the pollution arising from these sites.



Source: NWO