Two IBEC projects win IGNITE funding from BIST

Two projects coordinated by IBEC group leaders have been successful in gaining funding through the Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology’s IGNITE call, which promotes the initiation of new collaborations among BIST researchers and accelerate multidisciplinary research.

The projects were two of just five that were selected in the 2017 call to be funded through IGNITE’s seed phase. The researchers will have eight months to develop them, after which, in a second phase, an additional award for a further 12 months is given to the two best projects from the five selected during the seed phase.

Observing photosynthesis is at the heart of the Quantum-controlled Single Protein Electron Transport (Q-SPET) project, coordinated by IBEC Group Leader and ICREA research professor Pau Gorostiza and Niek van Hulst at ICFO, which aims to measure quantum effects in photosynthetic protein complexes.

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“In photosynthetic bacteria and plants, we find these groups of proteins that work together to transform light into electric current with nearly perfect efficiency. Niek was a pioneer in the discovery of these complex’s large-scale quantum effects in light absorption, which is their physiological function,” explains Pau.

The IBEC group, which specialises in ultrasensitive electrochemical measurements in proteins, and the ICFO group, a leader in studying quantum effects in photosynthetic complexes, have joined forces to measure a scientific phenomenon with huge potential.

“Observing quantum effects requires extreme experimental conditions, so being able to discover and measure quantum effects in proteins at room temperature is an exceptional advance that opens up many doors. To start with, it will allow us to study the physiological significance of these quantum phenomena, which hasn’t yet been proven, but expectations are much broader: we could come to have quantum technology, like computers, based on quantum bits of proteins working at room temperature, or develop extremely efficient systems to collect solar energy,” says Pau.

The other IBEC project, Engineered models of intestinal epithelial tissue: assessing in vivo-like functional properties (ENGUT), is led by IBEC’s Elena Martínez and Emilio Gualda of ICFO. The project aims to come up with a new cell culture method that allows for in vitro production of epithelial tissue like that covering the inside walls of the intestine for use in basic research, diagnostics, drug assessment and for transplants and personalised regenerative medicine.

“The stem cells in intestinal tissue are renewed every 4 days. This process is regulated by a specific biochemical signalling, which reaches each cell in a different manner depending on its position in the cavities inside the intestines. We want to reproduce these vertical structures in a microfluidic device and, using a chip, control how much of the proteins reach each cell depending on its position. We hope this will help us speed up production of intestinal tissue,” explains Elena.

Dr Gualda’s group specialises in a novel technique known as light-sheet fluorescence microscopy (LSFM), which is essential for both manufacturing the device and monitoring and assessing cell growth. “Our devices are between 500 and 800 microns, a scale that makes it impossible to see them entirely with more common high-resolution microscopy. LSFM, instead of emitting a beam of light at a specific point, distributes it in a wider, ultra-thin layer that makes it possible to see relatively large structures and dynamic processes,” says Elena.

During the seed phase, the ENGUT team will manufacture the device and test the structure for cultivating intestinal stem cells from animal models, monitoring the process with LSFM. If the results are good, there will be a second phase in collaboration with the group led by Eduard Batlle of the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB Barcelona), which is also a BIST centre. This study will use the device as the basis for a 3D model of cancerous intestinal epithelial tissue, which would be a very important advance in in vitro models for oncology research. The final goal, after successful proof-of-concept with animal stem cells, is to produce intestinal tissue from patients’ own stem cells to be used in personalised medicine (implants or cell regeneration).