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Two young chemists win Marie Curie subsidy

The Leiden Institute of Chemistry (LIC) is to be joined by a further two talented young chemists. Bela Bode and Michele Pavanello have each won a Marie Curie subsidy. Bode will be studying electron transport in photosynthesis and Pavanello will be using computer models to study charge transport in large molecules.

Marie Curie subsidies

The aim of the European Commission with the Marie Curie subsidies is to encourage young scientists to further develop their scientific career. There are a number of different variants within the subsidies. Bode received an IEF (Intra-European Fellowship) award, intended for scientists within Europe who want to conduct research in another European country. Pavanello received an IIF (International Incoming Fellowship), for scientists from countries outside Europe who would like to carry out research in Europe. Both subsidies are for a project lasting 24 months, and will start in the course of this year.

Bela Bode

One-way street for photosynthesis

Bode, born in Germany, obtained his PhD in 2008 at the Goethe University in Frankfurt. He has been part of the LIC group headed by Jörg Matysik since 2009. His project will examine the initial steps in photosynthesis. 

Photosynthesis is the process by which plants and bacteria generate energy from sunlight. The efficiency of this process far exceeds that of artificial solar cells. If we want to imitate the natural process, we first have to fully understand how photosynthesis works. In the first phase of the process electrons transport the energy from the incoming light to reaction centres where it is converted into usable chemical energy. This electron transport is what Bode will be researching.



‘Proteins in which electrons are transported are symmetrical,' Bode explains. 'They have two paths along which electrons can travel. However, in most proteins only travel along one path. I want to understand why nature has made the proteins such that only one path is used, while both paths seem to be identical.'  

New method 

Research on photosynthesis has been going on for many years. But Bode now intends to use the state-of-the-art method of laser flash photo-CIDNP MAS NMR, which was recently the subject of a publication in PNAS by Matysik's research group. Bode: ‘This is a new approach to an old problem. And even if it only generates a small amount of information within a major problem, all these small pieces contribute to the understanding of the issue as a whole. What I particularly like about this project is that the things I learned during my PhD research can now be applied using a new method, in a stimulating environment like Leiden.'

Michele Pavanello

Calculating charge transport

Michele Pavanello's project is not so far removed from that of Bode.  Pavanello, originally from Italy and now completing his PhD research at the University of Arizona, will join Johannes Neugebauer's research group in Leiden during the course of the year. He will be investigating how electrons move within molecules. This may promote the understanding of photosynthesis, although Pavanello will be looking particularly at large molecules such as DNA.  


To be able to do this he will develop a computer model that imitates electron transport in large molecules. To date this has always proved very difficult. The electrons contain a large number of molecules and they all follow the laws of quantum mechanics which makes calculations extremely complex - too complex for the capabilities of present-day computers - so he has to work with estimates. 



Pavanello's aim is to make a simpler model. He will start with a clever approach, the FDE method (Frozen Density Embedding). FDE divides a large problem into smaller sub-problems. Once the smaller sub-problems have been calculated individually, they can be brought together again. 'This way the effects of quantum mechanics can be explained in systems that are currently impossible to describe,' Neugebauer, his mentor, adds.   


 Charge transport is an important process. For example, in the development of skin cancer.  'In the sun, your skin is bombarded by UV light,' Pavanello explains. 'Photons from sunlight force electrons out of the DNA of your skin cells, causing the DNA molecule to become positively charged. To resolve the problem, the charge is shifted to another part of the molecule. This part can adapt its chemistry so as to erase the excess charge. This is known as DNA mutation, and is what triggers tumours. Research into the charge transport of DNA has been going on for more than 20 years; this new model will allow us to make significant advances in this research.'  

See also: Three Marie Curie subsidies for young physicists (University Newsletter 12 januari 2010) 

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