Professors Jack Pronk and Yuli Nazarov have each been awarded a European Research Council Advanced Grant, which will fund two separate projects. While they were each notified around the same time, their research areas are radically different from one another.
Dr. Jack Pronk from the Department of Biotechnology (Applied Sciences) was awarded €2.5 million for a project titled ELOXY (Eliminating Oxygen Requirements in Yeasts). It will attempt to answer the question of why various different types of yeasts and fungi require molecular oxygen. "The ability of baker's yeast to grow without oxygen is not only very rare among yeasts, but also among fungi in general," he said. "To tackle this puzzle, we will combine genomics, synthetic biology and physiology to investigate the molecular basis for oxygen requirements in a range of different yeasts and fungi."
These tiny organisms can obtain lots of energy from anaerobic fermentation processes but they still need at least a bit of oxygen in order to survive. No one knows quite why and the reasons could prove beneficial to engineers and bakers alike. "By understanding and eliminating oxygen requirements, we can tap into biodiversity for yeasts and fungi that have attractive properties for large-scale industrial applications, for example, because they are intrinsically more robust under industrial conditions than ‘conventional' baker’s yeast," Pronk said. "So I hope this research will not only solve an intriguing scientific puzzle, but that it will also contribute to sustainable production of fuels and chemicals."
Dr. Yuli Nazarov of the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience (Applied Sciences) will also receive €1.5 million for a project named HITSUPERJU (Higher-Dimensional Topological Solids Realized with Multi-terminal Superconducting Junctions). It will focus on topological materials, a somewhat recently discovered substance that exhibits properties similar to conductors and insulators simultaneously in certain states.
These materials could one day be used in quantum computers but, currently, they're notoriously difficult to work with and control. However, some progress has been made by using multi-terminal superconducting junctions. Dr. Nazarov plans to assemble a team of theorists to investigate the materials and develop concepts for experiments and potential further applications.