Liedewij Laan Lab

The Laan lab is located in the Department of Bionanoscience, part of the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience at the Delft University of Technology. We are pioneering the emerging field of evolutionary cell biophysics.

Evolutionary Cell Biophysics
How is it possible that life is simultaneously highly robust on cell cycle timescales, yet also adaptable on evolutionary timescales? How do these properties emerge from the molecular building blocks of life? As pioneers of the emerging field of evolutionary cell biophysics, we are fascinated by how the physical and chemical properties of the building blocks, or components, of a cell (such as proteins, DNA, lipids etc. that need to obey physical and chemical laws) constrain and facilitate evolution of cellular functions. In this case a cellular function is the result of a complex, highly spatially and temporally regulated network, consisting of many different interacting components, “a biomolecular network”. The biomolecular network we focus on is symmetry breaking in budding yeast, which is the first step in polarity establishment and essential for proliferation. In budding yeast symmetry breaking is achieved by a biomolecular network of ~30 components which, through several regulatory feedback loops, form a localized protein pattern on the cell membrane. As a community we are starting to obtain a molecular understanding of how a living cell is organised by biomolecular networks on cell cycle timescales, however, how these networks reorganize over evolutionary timescales is still a major open question.

Why are these hard questions?
How biomolecular networks evolve is a complex problem for at least two reasons. First it is hard to know if a mutation in the network increases fitness and thus is adaptive, because this depends on the specific environment present when the mutation arose and we typically do not know the relevant environment for the evolutionary trajectory of existing species. Second, even if we know that a mutation is adaptive, it is hard to find out how adaptive mutations improve fitness, or even simply which biomolecular networks are affected for fitness increase, because in a living cell all biomolecular networks are connected.

Why do we care?
Foremost because these questions fascinate us. However we also hope that our fundamental findings help to (on the long run) better predict and control evolutionary processes, that have societal relevance, such as cancer progression or antibiotic resistance emergence, or the engineering of genetically stable drought resistant crobs.

Our approach
We take a multidisciplinary approach. First we combine experimental evolution, quantitative cell biology and modelling in live cells to study how adaptive mutations increase the fitness of a biomolecular network. The strength of this approach is that we can directly test whether a mutation is adaptive. Nevertheless, in this system, it is still challenging to find out how adaptive mutations increase fitness at the molecular level due to the overwhelming complexity of a living cell. Therefore, we are also setting-up minimal in vitro systems. In these systems we know the complete network, so we can manipulate and control every component to determine its function for the network’s fitness and evolvability. Last but not least, we perform experimental evolution studies to test whether we how well we predict and steer evolution based on our acquired knowledge.

Group photos

Research Funding
The Laan lab gratefully acknowledges funding from:

Created by Andreu Taberner.


September 1st
We said goodbye to Werner and Els, and welcome Renske, who will do her combined nanobiology and science communication MEP in our lab and Caspar who will work as a researcher in the lab.

August 23rd
Thomas successfully defended his MEP, congrats!

July 18-22
Liedewij and Nynke attend the synthetic cell workshop at the Lorentz center where Nynke will present a poster and Liedewij will give an oral presentation about the work of Sophie and Werner.

July 13th
Hurray, our Kavli Seed money proposal about noise for transgenerational feedback was funded, looking forward to doing the work with Jos Zwanikken and Caspar Schmeits!

July 11th
Caspar finished his master project successfully, congrats!

July 6th
David and Liedewij’s paper about evolution of multicomponent systems is now published in PNAS, check out a nice laymen description here

July 2nd
Werner’s paper entitled “Epigenetic feedback on noisy expression boosts evolvability”, is now available as a preprint

Marieke submitted her review paper on self-organisation, complexity and evolution of cell polarity!

May 9-22
Liedewij, Marieke and Buddy attend the EMBO workshop, phase separation in cell biology in Heidelberg, Marieke and Buddy present a poster.

May 1st
Valentina joins the lab as a Nanobiology master student and will continue our nanostar research.

April 11th
We have a new doctor: congrats to dr. Christine Linne, who did a beautiful study of superselective surface binding.

March 9th
Floor successfully defended her master thesis in Nanobiology, congrats!