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Teaching synthetic molecules how to communicate

Although Sander Wezenberg just started working in Leiden in March this year, he already managed to win a Vidi grant from NWO. Inspired by nature, Wezenberg wants to bring synthetic molecules to life and teach them to communicate. But who exactly is Wezenberg and what drives him?

Back to the Netherlands

Wezenberg is an assistant professor at the Leiden Institute of Chemistry (LIC). He went to secondary school in Apeldoorn, and then stayed in Gelderland to study chemistry at the Radboud University in Nijmegen. After that, he obtained his PhD at the Institute of Chemical Research of Catalonia in Spain. ‘During my studies I did an internship in Barcelona, and I liked it,’ Wezenberg explains his choice for Spain. After a short internship at the Northwestern University in Chicago he became a postdoc at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich. ‘But at one point I felt like returning to the Netherlands. I then wrote to Ben Feringa in Groningen to see if I could work for him.

‘I am happy in Leiden’

Wezenberg could start as a postdoc at the future Nobel Prize winner, and was soon awarded a Veni grant. ‘From that moment on I could work more on my own ideas.’ Eventually, Wezenberg worked five years in Groningen, two of which as an assistant professor. The decision to leave Groningen came when he received an ERC Starting Grant in mid-2018. ‘I wanted to start a new research group, and Leiden offered me that opportunity.’ Leiden's expertise in studying biological processes attracted Wezenberg in particular. ‘I am happy to work here in Leiden. There is a nice working atmosphere with nice people.’

‘For me, the beauty of chemistry is that you can create new things’

The love for chemistry

‘In many other disciplines you study something that already exists. For me, the beauty of chemistry is that you can create new things,’ Wezenberg explains his love for chemistry. ‘Not only can you synthesize new molecules, you even can create new functions. And that without real limits,’ he beams. And creating those new functions is exactly what Wezenberg intends to do with his Vidi grant. ‘In recent decades, we have become extremely good at synthesizing all sorts of molecules. But the substances we currently make are static, and lack the dynamic functions such as proteins in nature. I want to make smart molecules which are able to receive and pass along signals, so that they can communicate with each other.’

Smart molecules

Living organisms continuously react to stimuli from their environment, such as light, smell, or taste. Those stimuli are processed in chemical communication networks. Wezenberg wants to implement those networks in synthetic molecular systems in the lab. ‘For this, we use molecules which are capable of changing shape by means of light or a chemical signal. A kind of molecular machines. Hopefully, this kind of research will lead to the development of new intelligent materials and medicines, which are more effective than current medicines and have very few side-effects.’     

The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) awards Vidi grants to experienced researchers who have spent a number of years conducting research after completing their doctorate. The Vidi grant consists of 800,000 euros. This will enable Vidi laureates to develop their own innovative line of research and set up their own research group in the coming five years. 

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