TU Delft active in three Gravitation programmes
The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) has announced the distribution of funding within their Gravitation programme. Jet Bussemaker, Minister of Education, Culture and Science, has made a total of €112.8 million available for the Gravitation programme, with the aim of boosting world-leading Dutch research. TU Delft is participating in three programmes, involving total funding of nearly €60 million. The programmes are focused on the Synthetic Cell (coordinated by TU Delft), Organs-on-a-Chip and Quantum Software.
BaSyC, a Dutch research consortium, is taking on the challenge of building a synthetic biological cell. TU Delft is coordinating the consortium, made up of researchers from five universities and AMOLF, one of the NWO research institutes.
Constructing a synthetic biological cell is one of the greatest challenges facing 21st-century science. We already have extensive knowledge of the molecular building blocks that form the basis of life, but we do not yet understand how they work together to make life possible.
The cell is the basis of all organisms. ‘The BaSyC consortium therefore aims to combine biomolecular building blocks to construct an autonomous, self-reproducing cell: a cell that can maintain its own integrity, grow and reproduce’, says coordinating scientist Prof. Marileen Dogterom, head of TU Delft's BioNanoscience department. Dogterom believes that knowledge of life processes opens up unprecedented opportunities for a healthy and sustainable world in many aspects of health care, agriculture, materials and energy.
‘We intend to build this synthetic cell from the bottom-up, as this is the most lucid approach to understanding a cell’, continues Dogterom. ‘A fundamental understanding of life within a cell will bring huge intellectual, scientific and technological rewards. It will also simultaneously raise philosophical and ethical questions about how society should deal with this new understanding and potential.’
For the first time, the consortium brings together a truly interdisciplinary pool of expertise to construct the first synthetic cell from the bottom up.’ BaSyC (Building a Synthetic Cell) is a joint project involving TU Delft, University of Groningen, VU University Amsterdam, Wageningen University & Research, Radboud University Nijmegen and AMOLF.
In the coming decade, researchers from the LUMC, the University of Twente (UT), UMCG, TU Delft and the Hubrecht Institute plan to use the Gravitation subsidy to realize miniature organs from patients in which to study how illnesses develop and how can be treated.
Living human cells and tissues are cultivated outside of the body in ‘organs-on-chips’: tiny compartments on a silicon chip in which the conditions inside the body are replicated. This process is facilitated by elements including micro-channels in the chips, which allow very small amounts of liquid to be precisely administered – to feed the growing cell, for example. Miniature pumps supply and drain the liquid, and sensors monitor the cells behaviour. ‘In fact, you are making a small part of an organ’, says Christine Mummery, Professor of Developmental Biology at the LUMC and UT.
Mummery is the head of the project, which also involves five other acclaimed researchers. One of these is Lina Sarro, nanotechnologist at TU Delft and researcher at hDMT. Sarro: ‘The three-dimensional micro- and nano-structuring of silicon and polymers developed at TU Delft enables us to replicate organ functions precisely and reproducibly. Electrodes and sensors can be integrated in order to provide electromechanical stimulation and read out of the cells. In addition, the IC (integrated circuit)-compatible microfabrication techniques used enable large-scale production with high reproducibility, which is essential for a wide use and later commercialisation of these devices’.
The research will focus on heart, brain, intestine and blood vessel cells, which will be cultivated from stem cells acquired from patients suffering from certain disorders. These cells subsequently form the basis of the ‘chip organs’, which function exactly like organs in the human body. This approach allows researchers to accurately replicate what goes wrong in organs for certain diseases’.
The cultivated miniature organs provide a good alternative to animal testing. Moreover, the efficacy and side effects of new medicines can be tested faster and more effectively in ‘organs-on-chips’.
The Quantum Software Consortium (QSC) will develop and implement a quantum internet and software for small quantum computers. The consortium is a collaboration between information scientists, mathematicians and physicists from QuSoft, CWI, Leiden University, QuTech, TU Delft, the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and the VU University Amsterdam.
Quantum technology uses quantum bits. In contrast to conventional bits that are 0 or 1, quantum bits can be 0 and 1 simultaneously. This fundamental difference paves the way for unprecedented calculations, but also means that quantum computers need to be built and programmed completely differently to standard computers.
The Quantum Software Consortium will develop and implement a quantum internet and software for small quantum computers. To that end, the consortium will develop protocols for quantum communication and a new type of cryptography that is safe to use in the world of quantum technology. New algorithms and protocols will be tested on hardware that will become available in Delft and Leiden, and on a quantum network that will be established between Amsterdam, Delft, Leiden and The Hague.
Primary applicant Professor Harry Buhrman (QuSoft, CWI, UvA): ‘‘We expect that small-scale quantum platforms and networks will soon become available. Such systems allow for calculations that extend far beyond those dreamed for conventional computers. The potential of these future quantum technologies is huge, but we will face great challenges in learning what to compute and how to perform such calculations.
Stephanie Wehner (QuTech, TU Delft) emphasises the prominent role of the consortium: : ‘Quantum software is essential for quantum networks and computing. This grant allows us to take even bigger steps in the development and realisation of world-leading software applications for the future quantum internet in The Netherlands – possibly being the world’s first.
More information (press release CWI)
With the NWO Gravitation programme, the government is encouraging outstanding research in the Netherlands. It is intended for scientific consortia that have the potential to rank among the world's best.