ERC Advanced Grants for professors Gijs Wuite, Jeroen Aerts and Pieter Rein ten Wolde

Gijs Wuite, Full Professor of Physics of Life Processes, Jeroen Aerts, Full Professor of Water and Climate Risk and Pieter Rein ten Wolde, endowed professor of Physics of Living Systems and AMOLF group leader, have been awarded a European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant.

03/31/2020 | 8:53 AM

The ERC Advanced Grant is the largest individual research grant in Europe. With the new five-year grant of 2 million euros, Professor Gijs Wuite will implement MONOCHROME, a major research project at the Department of Physics and Astronomy. With his grant of 2.5 million euros, Professor Jeroen Aerts will run COASTMOVE, an international and collaborative research initiative within the Institute for Environmental Studies (IVM). Ten Wolde will work on the project OCP within the research institute AMOLF where he is group leader of the group Biochemical Networks.

Mechanically mapped chromosomes

In his MONOCHROME project, Gijs Wuite will produce the first mechanical map of chromosomes to gain insight into the structure and organization of DNA in chromosomes. Using the cutting-edge technology of ‘optical tweezers’, he can attach chromosomes extracted from cells to microscopic spheres. “This technique enables you to actually take hold of and feel the chromosome. By doing this, we can apply precise forces to a chromosome, such as pushing and pulling, and study how it reacts to them,” Wuite explains. “After being extracted from the cell and isolated in their purest form, the chromosomes are preserved in liquid to keep their natural conditions as intact as possible.”

All cells contain chromosomes, including cancer cells. Those chromosomes often have an abnormal structure. By mechanically mapping chromosomes, Wuite can also study how the firmness of a chromosome differs, as a result of disease, for example. Wuite plans to use the grant to expand his research group. “There are currently only two of us working on this project. The grant gives us the opportunity to hire five extra researchers and considerably expand our line of research.”

Rising sea levels: fight or flight?

In his COASTMOVE project, Jeroen Aerts will investigate the effects of rising sea levels on migration in coastal areas worldwide. His aim is to develop a simulation model to answer the question “Will people in coastal areas defend their communities and settlements or will they move away?” The ultimate aim of the model is to produce a simulation for all of the world’s coastal areas.

“We are going to carry out surveys in a total of seven coastal areas to investigate how the inhabitants themselves view rising sea levels. By doing so we can discover whether they will find ways of defending their coastline, as we do in the Netherlands, or whether they will move away. The countries where we are going to carry out this research include Bangladesh, Vietnam and Ghana,” Aerts reveals.

He also plans to use the grant to scale up his research group. “In addition, we will be investing in partners, including other research institutes, to fund research collaboration on location. We are also working closely with the World Bank on this project.” Aerts has already carried out a wealth of research on rising sea levels, but this will be the first study that also looks at the link with migration.

Optimal Cellular Prediction

We all live in a highly dynamic environment to which we continually have to respond and adapt. Yet, taking action takes time. We have therefore evolved the ability to anticipate changes in our environment and mount a response ahead of time. Experiments in recent years have vividly demonstrated that even single-celled organisms such as bacteria can predict, for example, future nutrient levels. Yet, how reliably they can do so, and what the costs and benefits of prediction are, have remained unclear.

In the project OCP Pieter Rein ten Wolde will combine measures from information theory and ideas from statistical physics to derive the fundamental limit to the prediction accuracy. He will determine how close living cells can come to this limit as set by resource constraints to build and operate the sensing system – protein copies, time, and energy. Finally, he will use this theoretical framework to set up experiments that will make it possible to test whether two specific biological systems, bacteria and yeast cells, have implemented the uncovered design principles for optimal cellular prediction.

Image from left to right: Jeroen Aerts, Pieter Rein ten Wolde and Gijs Wuite.