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Unilever Research Prize for master student Lukas Kiefer

Leiden Biology student Lukas Kiefer has won the Unilever Research Prize 2018 for his research into efficient production of a new antibiotic. Kiefer: ‘I want to make biological medicines available to people in need.'

Sleeping antibiotic

‘Today we witness a steadily declining rate of antibiotic discovery and an emergence of infectious diseases associated with multi drug resistant bacteria’, Kiefer tells. ‘This results in a serious need for novel antibiotics.’ He therefore worked on unraveling the regulatory mechanisms of the biosynthesis of lugdunomycin, an antibiotic produced by Streptomyces bacteria. This so-called ‘sleeping’ antibiotic however is only produced in small quantities, which is also the reason that it has not been discovered by companies before. Kiefer has been concerned with enhancing the biosynthesis of lugdunomycine in Streptomyces, thereby improving the production yield. He was able to identify an essential activator gene, as well as two positive regulators for lugdunomycin production.

Mutant strains

Lukas generated mutant Streptomyces strains by turning of and overexpressing different regulatory genes. This way, he could study the effect of the genes on lugdunomycin production. ‘After generating the mutant strains, I extracted the organic compounds they produced.’ Next, he analysed these compounds to determine the amount of lugdunomycin and its precursor compounds in it. Knowing these amounts, he could identify the effects of the regulatory genes on lugdunomycin production.

New antibiotics

Since his bachelor’s, Kiefer has been interested in harnessing the often untapped potential of microorganisms to produce clinically-relevant biological agents. ‘Society is in desperate need of novel antibiotics to combat the ever increasing rates of multi drug resistant bacteria.’ Therefore, novel antibacterial compounds are very important. ‘Making these biological medicines available to people in need and doing my part in making healthcare better sparked my interested in this research.’ Kiefer is excited and honoured to receive the prize. ‘I think the prize and the Global Goals not only motivate students in my field to do excellent research, but also creates awareness on how to solve some of the most pressing issues of today’s society.’


‘Lukas stood out because of his extremely professional attitude, which you rarely see with an MSc student’, tells his supervisor and Gilles van Wezel, scientific director of the Institute of Biology Leiden. ‘He also participated very actively in discussions and work meetings.’ According to Van Wezel, Kiefer’s research has contributed to the production and therefore commercialization of Streptomyces. Educational director Remko Offringa adds: ‘His thesis perfectly fits within two of Unilever's Global Goals: health and responsible production. A nice detail with which he distinguished himself from the other Leiden Biology candidates was that he did volunteer work in Africa.’ Not only did Lukas graduated cum laude, he also was granted a 8.5 for his internship.

The Unilever Research Prize

The Unilever Research Prize is awarded each year to 13 talented students across all universities of the Netherlands for excellent quality of their research conducted in the fields of chemistry, biotechnology, mechanical engineering, agricultural sciences and social sciences. The 2018 prize is in the spirit of the UN Global Goals for sustainable development, therefore the topics of graduation must interface with one or more of these goals, an important criterion to qualify. With the prize, the company expresses its appreciation for high-quality scientific research as taught at Dutch universities.

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