Sixteen groundbreaking research projects launched through third round NWO Open Competition – XS

24 April 2020

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 RNA-viruses such as the coronavirus, new methods for drug screening and environmental friendly chemistry to the capture of CO2 from the atmosphere.

The summaries of the approved projects are listed below, in alphabetical order:

Green Peptide Synthesis
Dr H.B. Albada | WUR
Peptide drugs are important molecular arms in our fight against many life-threatening diseases. At the moment, there are >50 of these used in the clinic, and many more are in preclinical development. Most of these peptide drugs are prepared by fully synthetic methods. Unfortunately, these methods produce 100–1000 units of nonrecyclable toxic chemical waste for each unit of peptide drug. I propose an alternative method that allows us to imitate nature’s method to make peptides, and thereby make the process more atom efficient than current methods, and perform the chemistry in the most sustainable solvent of all: water.

Novel aluminum oxide microring biosensors for real-time monitoring of cytokine release in drug screening
Dr I.E. Allijn | UT
Drug development, but also vaccine development, has a tedious and expensive in vitro screening procedure. Cytokines, that induce an inflammatory reaction, can be used as a marker to detect side effects of drugs. Typically, these cytokines are measured at the end of a test, an end-point measurement. Because of the variation in cytokine secretion times, end-point measurements can miss important information. Therefore, a fast measuring approach is needed for cytokine release monitoring in real-time. To this end, I propose a novel optical biosensor consisting of an aluminum oxide microring resonator for real-time monitoring of cytokine release in vitro.

Accessing the local yeast killer toxicome – a potentially rich source for new antifungals.
Dr S. Billerbeck | RUG
Pathogenic fungi increasingly become resistance to antifungals, threatening human health and food security. Few antifungals are available, as it is challenging to develop new ones. Wild yeast – such as isolates of baker’s yeast and related species - have evolved a large pool of protein antifungals to compete in the environment. The functional diversity of these toxins suggests that they represent a huge arsenal of naturally optimized ways to kill fungi. The toxins’ potential remains untapped, as effective efforts for their biomining are missing. We will trial the first step of a toxicome-discovery-pipeline that could deliver hundreds of new antifungals.

Genome editing of pollen using CRISPR/Cas9
Dr L.B. Bortesi | MU
CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing technology is a versatile tool for targeted mutagenesis in plants, useful to determine gene functions and rapidly generate new crop varieties. However, it is possible to obtain CRISPR/Cas9-modified plants only for a handful of species. This represents a major bottleneck in the widespread application of CRISPR/Cas9 in plants. This project aims to develop methods for direct genome editing in pollen. This would overcome this challenge, because the edited pollen could be used to generate genome-edited plants by conventional fertilization. If successful, these methods will have a high scientific impact on this technology for crop improvement.

A new, innovative method to study astrophysical jets
Dr N.D. Degenaar | UvA
Neutron stars are tiny objects with a diameter of only 20 kilometer, but they spit powerful streams of gas and energy into space that move with nearly the speed of light and extend over distances of trillions of kilometers. These so-called “jets” are produced by a variety of astronomical objects and play a fundamental role for several areas of astrophysics. Yet, it remains a mystery how jets are formed. In this NWO project, the researchers will test an innovative method to witness the repeated destruction and restoration of jets. This will provide new insight into how jets are formed.

An alternative approach to inherited diseases
Prof. L.J. Braakman | UU
Inherited diseases originate from defects in DNA, which usually translate into defective proteins. Treatments target symptoms, because gene therapy still is only a dream for most. We take inspiration from the lethal disease cystic fibrosis, where an alternative (almost curative) treatment, a drug, targets the defective protein. We aim to test ~10 inherited-disease proteins for their defects and response to correction, to establish whether they are suitable drug targets or not. The yield of success would be so vast that this project is well worth the risk of investment. Fundamental biochemical knowledge then would lead to innovative, faster drug development.

The role of “inactive thyroid hormone metabolite’’, reverse T3, in human brain development
Dr N. Gunhanlar | Erasmus MC
Thyroid hormone (TH) is crucial for human brain development. The current dogma in thyroid field is that reverse T3 (rT3) is an inactive form of TH. There are however indications suggesting the biological relevance of rT3, particularly in fetal brain development. The lack of understanding of the role of rT3 in fetal brain development makes for a major knowledge gap. The breakthrough of Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPSCs) technology offers a unique opportunity to study living human brain cells. This project proposes a human cellular model to unravel the neglected role of rT3 in fetal brain development.

Cellular noise modulation: which gene-circuits control gene expression variability?
Dr M.M.K. Hansen | RU
Noise in gene expression can lead to large differences in protein levels between individual cells, resulting in drastic differences in cells’ abilities to carry out their job. For instance, increased noise is a phenomenon associated with antibiotic resistance in bacteria or diseases such as HIV and cancer. It is thought that cells have developed ways to reduce noise that has a detrimental outcome. In this project we will determine how cells can regulate noise to impact their function, which in turn will improve our understanding of how defects in noise-regulation can result in disease progression.

Identification of therapeutically-relevant RNA structural motifs in Coronaviruses
Dr D.I. Incarnato | RUG
RNA viruses constitute one of the greatest threats to humans’ health. Thanks to their ability to rapidly adapt by mutating the sequence of their proteins, they can easily become resistant to traditional pharmaceutical treatments. However, while the sequence of their genomes changes rapidly, the 2D and 3D structures of the genome appears to be more constant. By studying the structure of coronaviruses’ genomes inside both viral particles and infected host cells, we will hopefully identify crucial structural elements within their genomes. This knowledge will be used for the development of more effective and durable antiviral drugs.

Direct catalytic valorization of atmosphere CO2: can reducible oxides bring us there?
Dr N.A. Kosinov | TU/e
In view of the emerging climate crisis reducing the carbon footprint has become pivotal. The direct catalytic valorization of CO2 from its diluted mixtures (atmosphere, flue gas, biogas, etc.) to valuable C1 molecules is the most straightforward solution, although it poses several unsolved scientific challenges. In this project a library of potentially game-changing catalysts for the direct hydrogenation of diluted CO2 to CO and CH4 will be designed in order to explore the direct utilization of lean CO2 streams. The research will focus on nanostructured transition metals particles supported on reducible oxides, possessing both high CO2 affinity and hydrogenation activity.

Development of a toolkit for visualizing protein-protein interactions in multicellular organisms
Dr J.R. Kroll | UU
Interactions among proteins are fundamental for life, and misregulation of them can lead to diseases such as cancer. Current technologies lack the ability to identify the cell type and developmental timing of many protein-protein interactions. Using an approach that relies on protein splicing, I will develop a universal toolkit that will enable visualization of protein interactions by microscopy. This toolkit will revolutionize how we detect and understand protein interactions.

Solvent-free Chemistry
Dr W. L. Noorduin | AMOLF
Solvent-free reactions are important for environmentally friendly chemistry. Scientists will explore how 3D print technology enables chemical reactions without solvents. To this aim, a new printer will be developed for performing chemical reactions in a melt from which the desired product is directly printed.

Mouse brain connectivity throughout development: using ultrasound in utero to predict adult behaviour
Dr I. Serra | Erasmus MC
Measuring brain activity throughout development remains a technical and methodological challenge. This hinders our understanding of how disrupted brain function early in life leads to behavioural deficits in adulthood. This problem is pressing since symptoms of many disorders can be better managed when therapy is initiated early. We aim to address this by developing a method to measure brain signals with ultrasound throughout development, and apply it to predict behavioural deficits in a mouse model of autism spectrum disorder. By visualizing early life brain activity, this new technique will allow us to find brain alterations before changes in behaviour occur.

Calcium carbonate dissolution at the seafloor: physics, chemistry or biology?
Dr O.J.T. Sulpis | UU
Calcium carbonate minerals derived from the shells of planktonic organisms, cover most of the seafloor and act as a giant antacid tablet protecting the oceans against acidification caused by massive CO2 emissions. However, it is not well known what controls this dissolution (physics, chemistry or biology), nor how fast it is happening. The seafloor is home to a myriad of unknown microbes that respire organic carbon to CO2 which then can induce calcium carbonates dissolution. We propose to explore the role of respiration driven calcium carbonate dissolution by deploying a set of microsensors at the bottom of the Pacific ocean.

CO2 to electrons
Dr Y. Tang | TU/e
Concerning CO2 capture, the only technique that is mature at the industrial scale is amine absorber, which applies chemical absorption using solutions of alkanolamines. However, the extensive implementation of amine absorber is hampered by its high costs. Therefore, we will explore a novel approach for cost-effective CO2 capture. This is achieved by integrating amine absorber with bubble column electricity generation based on the application of ferrofluids and magnetic fields. Experimental outcome will also contribute to fundamental understanding of bubble dynamics in complex fluids. This project will open up a new research path of this “green” CO2-to-electrons method.

Project Zero: Imagining a Brave CPU-free World!
Dr A.K. Trivedi | VU Amsterdam
Since the beginning of computing, we have relied on the CPU for data processing. As the CPU performance improved over the decades, so did our data processing capabilities. However, we are hitting a plateau where not only the performance gains are stalling, but the CPU is now considered a major source of inefficiencies and security vulnerabilities. Project Zero proposes to completely eliminate the CPU (0% usage) and associated inefficiencies from computing. The project will revolutionize the way computation is done by building a first-of-its-kind CPU-free data-processing application that leverages modern domain-specific, programmable non-CPU devices and accelerators available today.


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Source: NWO