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NWO TOP grants for two Leiden chemists

Using photosynthesis to generate energy, or using enzymes to effectively produce biofuel; Leiden chemists Huub de Groot en Hermen Overkleeft have both obtained an NWO TOP funding for their pioneering research. With the money they can take on new PhD students.

NWO TOP grant

Within the Chemical Sciences domain, the NWO (Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research) has awarded four TOP grants to top chemical researchers. Overkleeft and De Groot are two of them. The grant is intended to strengthen or expand innovative research lines of established top research groups. De Groot receives an amount of 780,000 euros. He will use this to set up a national collaboration with three new PhD students together with colleagues from Twente (Annemarie Huijser) and Groningen (Thomas Jansen). Overkleeft will receive an amount of 820,000 euros, which he and his colleagues Hans Aerts and Jeroen Codée will also spend on three new PhD students.

Cutting enzymes

Overkleeft's research focuses on so-called endoglycosidases. These are enzymes that cut long sugar chains into pieces. Among others with kidney diseases, this goes wrong: the cutting enzyme is active in the wrong places, for example outside the cell, where it then produces undesired sugar chains. ‘That's why my team and I will look for molecules that can block the responsible enzyme', says Overkleeft.

Making biofuel

The team also focuses on biotechnological applications of endoglycosidases. In the production of biofuel, cellulose (a long sugar chain) is converted into smaller combustible building blocks. This process depends on efficient endoglycosidases, which the researchers want to detect. Overkleeft: 'You want to cut cellulose into defined small building blocks and not be dependent on strongly acidic hydrolysis conditions. These are not sustainable and produce a complex mixture of chemicals.’

Efficient energy transport

Huub de Groot and his team want to unravel the mechanisms behind the highly efficient energy transport in photosynthesis. Green bacteria can collect energy from sunlight with high efficiency and convert it into chemical energy.  'We are working on chlorosomes, the light antennas of these bacteria', says De Groot. 'Even in low-light environments, they can still conduct photosynthesis. Every light particle is used'.

Articifial leaves

De Groot and his team suspect that a molecular twist forms the basis of this efficiency. Through a combination of spectroscopy and computer simulations they want to investigate the role of these twists. 'I think that with this, we are onto a general principle that appears to be omnipresent in biology', says De Groot. He hopes that this will teach people to design new materials for all kinds of applications. For example, 'artificial leaves': solar cells that convert sunlight into fuel just as efficiently as bacteria.

News article NWO: 4.1 million euros for chemical research via TOP and ECHO grants

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