A living cell is like a castle of Lego, says Liedewij Laan. She just received a European grant of 1.5 million euros to study how organisms evolve.
How do organisms adapt to changing environments? Through survival of the fittest, sure. But how does this work at the biochemical level? That is what Dr Liedewij Laan, of the Applied Science Faculty, will study with the ERC Starting Grant she just received from the European Union.
“Living matter has to obey the same physical laws as non-living matter. You can compare a living cell to a castle of Lego, in which all the pieces of Lego are the proteins,” Laan says. “In a living cell however, all the little building blocks are continuously moving around. Furthermore, mutations cause their function in the network to change during evolution. A real castle of Lego would easily collapse if you mess too much with the building blocks. Somehow proteins are much more flexible, and this flexibility allows cells to evolve.”
A real castle of Lego would easily collapse
Since proteins form many different networks in cells and these networks are all interconnected, the question is how these networks reorganise themselves during evolution without compromising fitness. This question is not only fundamentally interesting, it also has important implications for human health: cancer and antibiotic resistance are poorly understood evolutionary processes.
"Applying the tools of math and the laws of physics to solve problems in biology; that is what fascinates me", says Laan who works both with yeast cells and with minimal synthetic systems – simple artificial fat cells - to try and figure out how cells can be so flexible. “I want to find basic rules of network evolution,” she says. “Practically, this means enclosing proteins one by one in a lipid droplet (a fat droplet) and measuring their location and function with fluorescence microscopy.”
Switching off proteins
In parallel, Laan will study yeast cells. She will ’switch off’ certain proteins to see how this influences the way the cell can evolve.
The European Research Council awarded four ERC Starting Grants to TU Delft researchers this year. The grants (1.5 million euros for a five year programme) are intended to support scientists who are in the early stages of their career and have already produced excellent supervised work.
Besides Laan, grants were awarded to Dr Wilson Smith, Dr Monique van der Veen and Dr Manuel Mazo. Smith plans to expand his research on electrochemistry as a means to transform CO2 and water to valuable chemicals and fuels. This may become essential in the near future given the energy and environmental challenges humanity faces. The project headed by van der Veen is aimed at designing ferroelectrics. Mazo intends to reduce the implementation and maintenance costs of so-called Cyber-Physical-Systems, which are digital systems that regulate and control many complex physical processes, such as chemical reactors or power networks.
Keep an eye on the Delta website in the following weeks to read about their research.