Chalmers + China to solve big challenges

Three research projects from the BIO-department got grants from VR to collaborate with China. The result will be a better understanding of how life is created, research on effective use of biomass and a possible substitute for the old antibiotics.

​The Department of Biology and Biological Engineering got three of VR’s grants for collaboration with China. This means that BIO got three out of six grants given to projects within the field of biotechnology, and Chalmers got four grants out of 12 awarded in total.

Professor Jens Nielsen, Professor Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede and Associate Professor Dina Petranovic are the awardees at BIO.
– We have top level research at our department. And more important, we are open minded in working with good research groups wherever they are in the world. We want to collaborate to advance science for the benefit of the Swedish society, says Jens Nielsen.

Jens Nielsen will work with a world leading group in Shanghai to identify novel natural products that can be used as antibiotics and anti-cancer drugs.
– It is one of the strongest research groups on microbial production and they want to interact with us to learn to use our systems biology tools, Jens Nielsen explains.
– They have a large collection of microorganisms that might possibly be used to produce bioactive drugs, such as antibiotics. These microorganisms have been genome-sequenced and we will perform data-mining using our research tools.

In Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede’s project, the researchers will take a closer look at DNA and proteins made of building blocks that are mirror images of nature’s own building blocks. DNA normally consists of nucleic acids of a certain shape, so called D-form, while proteins consists of amino acids with another shape, the so called L-form. D-form and L-form could be compared with a left and a right hand, mirroring each other. The research group now wants to create molecules with L-form nucleic acids and D-form amino acids.
– Then we want to find out how they work. Are they simply mirror images or do they get new traits? We will make the molecules in China, and then test them at Chalmers, Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede says.

Understanding how these molecules work will give a deeper understanding about how life is created, and could in the long run also give clues on how to design new pharmaceuticals.

Dina Petranovic’s project is about creating yeast strains that can produce cellulosomes which are multi-enzymatic structures. This means packing up several different enzymes that play different roles in degradation of biomass.
– If we aim to create a sustainable society that depends on renewables, instead of petroleum derivatives, we need efficient ways to use biomass. One way of using the biomass is to feed the catalysts that produce components such as chemicals – for fuels, medicines and polymers – and these catalysts use the sugars in the biomass, she explains.

For Dina Petranovic, it doesn’t really matter where her collaborators reside:
– We think about people and what they do. Who is nice, smart and kind, and with whom would I like to work? Who does research that is interesting, complementary to mine, and with overlapping interests? It’s really not important where these people are.

Text: Mia Malmstedt
Photo of Jens Nielsen and Dina Petranovic: Martina Butorac
Photo of Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede: Elin Berge

Published: Tue 21 Feb 2017.