Posted: November 12, 2009

ERC Advanced Grant of 2.5 million euros for research at the cutting edge of biology and nanotechnology

(Nanowerk News) Professor Cees Dekker of TU Delft has been awarded an ERC Advanced Grant of 2.5 million euros for research at the cutting edge of biology and nanotechnology. He will use the funding to investigate the evolution of bacteria in specially manufactured miniature 'nano landscapes', a type of very small Galapagos archipelago for bacteria. He will also be studying the transport of DNA molecules through tiny holes (nano pores).
The ERC Advanced Grant is a prestigious subsidy granted by the European Research Council of the EU for exceptional scientists who submit ambitious and groundbreaking research proposals. Professor Cees Dekker will use the allocated 2.5 million euros for research in the area of bio-nanoscience – the cutting edge of biology and nanotechnology. 'We want to use the power of nanofabrication, a skill that is particularly advanced at TU Delft, to find out more about big biological questions, such as the precise working of processes within cells.'
Galapagos Islands
In the first area of the research proposal, Dekker will look at bacteria. 'Nanofabrication techniques allow us to build precisely defined landscapes on a chip, in order to study the adaptation and evolution of bacteria. We are actually creating a kind of miniature Galapagos Islands for bacteria. Some of them will cross over to a different island, others won’t. By varying the environmental factors and properties of the bacteria, we can gain more insight into how bacteria adapt. We can directly observe evolution in space and time.'
'A particularly interesting aspect of this research is the fact that it brings in elements of game theory. For example, some bacteria aim for cooperation, while others are 'cheaters', which benefit from the work of their fellows. We can manage those properties too, and study them under controlled circumstances.'
In the connections between the islands, bacteria move through narrow channels. Within these nanochannels, they are flattened completely, eventually emerging from the other side in all kinds of amazing shapes. The research suggests that there may be many more bacteria present in narrow spaces than previously thought, which in turn has consequences for e.g. membrane filters and medical equipment.
Notably, the bacteria continue to grow and divide at normal speed within the channels. Dekker now wants to investigate further how cell division works in these exotic flat bacteria.
In the research with nanopores (the other part of the research proposal) the Dekker group will manufacture tiny holes (of only a couple of nanometers) with electron bundles through which DNA molecules can move and be tracked and screened. Eventually it may be possible to read the detailed genetic code of DNA molecules by entirely new means, and observe which genes are 'on' or 'off'.
Finally, Dekker will try to mimic the construction of biological pores. He will focus on the minuscule holes in the membrane of the cell nucleus. 'In those holes there are certain proteins which function as a kind of gatekeeper to the cell nucleus. They determine which molecules are allowed out or in. But exactly how they do that is still a mystery. By mimicking these holes with nanofabrication and coating them with these gatekeeper proteins, we hope to discover more about this important mechanism.'
The research may possibly lead to increased knowledge concerning some diseases and gene therapy.
Source: TU Delft