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Subsidies for high-grade research facilities

Three projects with Leiden researchers are to receive a subsidy from NWO for the construction or renovation of large-scale research facilities. They will be working on electron microscopy, an X-omics initiative and an X-ray telescope. The projects are part of the National Roadmap for Large-Scale Scientific Infrastructure.

Good scientific infrastructure is important for conducting innovative scientific research. Two years ago, NWO therefore decided to formulate the National Roadmap for Large-Scale Scientific Infrastructure. This Roadmap includes 33 research facilities that have been given the highest priority for redevelopment or renewal over the coming four years. Applications relating to ten of these projects have now been approved, amounting to a total of 138 million euros. Leiden researchers are involved in three of these projects: electron-microscopy to image individual atoms and molecules, facilities to measure biomolecules in cells, tissue and bodily fluids, and a new telescope to observe gases in space,.

NEMI: Looking with electrons

An electron microscope can magnify an object up to ten million times. The most minute elements of biological samples and man-made structures can be studied. This offers researchers the opportunity to see how individual atoms and molecules behave and structure themselves in their environment. The department of Electron Microscopy at LUMC Netherlands and the Leiden-based Centre for Electron Nanoscopy (NeCEN), coordinated by the Institute of Biology Leiden, are playing a key part in this project.

Ariane Briegel is Professor of Ultra-Structure Biology and is closely involved with NeCEN. ‘We will be able to use this NWO award to strengthen the position of NeCEN as the national centre for (cryo)electron microscopy. With this technique, biological samples can be frozen very rapidly, which generates a very precise 3D image of molecules in their natural state and environment. NeCEN is essential for many researchers, but the equipment is costly to maintain. We can use this subsidy to update the equipment and instruments so that it continues to be a cutting-edge facility for electron microscopy.' Briegel and her colleagues have also already been working to forge better links with other research groups in this field. Professor of Ultrastructural and Molecular Imaging Bram Koster adds: ‘We will also be renewing the  facilities in the LUMC. We are going to improve the automation of this technique, which will allow us to make 3D images five times as fast.’  

Read more (in Dutch): Subsidy of 17 million euros to develop electron microscopy  in the Netherlands

X-omics: Looking for the molecular basis of life

The X-omics initiative (pronounce it as cross-omics) brings together a number of molecular technologies so that researchers can look at complex and dynamic processes in cells. Genomics focuses on research on DNA and RNA, the carriers of our genetic material;  proteomics is about the structure and function of proteins and their interactions; and metabolomics focuses on metabolites, the interim or end products of biochemical reactions in cells, tissues, organs and complete organisms. A better understanding of how these biomolecules interact with one another is the key to a better understanding of  how diseases start and develop, how new medicines are developed and the action of enzymes and yeasts.  

Leiden University has the leading role in the area of  metabolomics, Professor Thomas Hankemeier explains. ‘The project is, in fact, in two parts. First of all we will be working on ways of integrating the data at the three levels of “omics”. That will make it possible to map out the dynamics between these different groups of biomolecules.’ After that, the researchers will expand  the technological opportunities in all three “omics” areas. ‘In metabolomics we want to be able to measure smaller samples, so that we can, for example, analyse an individual tumour cell – and raise the throughput of our techniques, so that measurements can be made faster and at lower cost.’ This would make dynamic measurements or large-scale biobanks possible. ‘The ultimate aim is of course to make these techniques available for use in the clinical environment or by patients themselves, so that health and diseases can be monitored effectively.’

See also: Seventeen million for Netherlands X-omics Initiative

ATHENA: A probing look at black holes

One of the projects is to develop the new Athena space telescope that will revolutionise our understanding of how the Universe evolved: from a more or less homogenous soup of matter to the highly structured Universe that we can observe today.  Furthermore, the X-ray space telescope will finally allow us to determine how super-massive black holes help shape and influence the Universe. Constructing Athena and sending it into space is ESA’s next major mission; according to the current plans, the telescope will be launched in 2028.

Huub Röttgering, Professor of Observational Cosmology: ‘The Netherlands Institute for Space Research (SRON) is responsible for the actual construction of the telescope - an X-ray camera with state-of-the-art technology - and we will contribute our scientific expertise.’ That includes knowledge from previous LOFAR radio telescopes and astronomical computer simulations. ‘We will be using them to study what we would like to measure with the new telescope, and what techniques and methods are needed.’ The project has a lot of benefits in many different areas, Röttgering comments. ‘The development of the telescope will generate new techniques that will provide opportunities for spin-off companies. Our students will have the chance to work with the newest and most exciting developments. And, naturally, the measurements made by the telescope will give us a better understanding of the Universe and our own origins.’

Read more: Netherlands makes crucial contribution to European X-ray telescope

Leiden University is also involved as a partner in two other research facilities that have received awards from NWO:  CLARIAH-PLUS (infrastructure for the humanties) and KM3NeT 2.0 (Neutrino Science in the Deep Sea).

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