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Researchers put spotlight on molecular dance

Published on
February 19, 2020

The molecular world is a miniature version of society. Because although it is difficult to predict the behaviour of individual molecules, it is easier to anticipate the behaviour of large groups. Professor Joris Sprakel wants to “bring this miniature world to light”. Therefore he will deliver his inaugural address at Wageningen University & Research on 20 February 2020. In this address, he will reveal his research plans.

Paint is one of the most important research lines for Professor Sprakel. For example, his team was once contacted by the Rijksmuseum: “If you’re going to remove the varnish layer in order to clean a painting, you want to be sure that you are removing only that layer, and not the eyeball of one of the soldiers in The Night Watch. To date, they use cotton swabs to test whether any paint comes off as well, but then it’s actually too late.” Scientists from the WUR and the Rijksmuseum are now working together to investigate what solvents do with oil paint. “My PhD candidate, Jesse Buijs, has created a small device that allows us to make highly precise measurements of where the solvent goes. If, after months or even years of arduous labour, a young scientist succeeds in bringing something to light, such that we are able to see something that has never before been seen—by us or by anyone before us—it feels like a voyage of discovery in a new world.”

They are therefore referring themselves the sociologists of the molecular world. Joris Sprakel and his team of scientists study the behaviours of molecules (and groups of molecules). “One area of expertise within my team involves bringing this miniature world to light. We develop smart tricks for making the molecular dance visible. For example, we are building molecules that do their jobs as miniature measuring tools and tell us their stories from the perspective of their own world. This form of ‘embedded journalism’ at the nano-scale opens up a whole new world,” explains Professor Sprakel.

Foto: Microscopische opname van een organisme dat de aardappelziekte veroorzaakt, op het moment van binnendringen van de plant. De foto laat het interne skelet van deze microbe zien. Door dit beter te begrijpen hopen we deze ziekten gerichter te kunnen bestrijden.

Photo: Microscopic recording of an organism that causes phytophthora at the moment it penetrates the plant. The photo shows the internal skeleton of this microbe. By understanding this better we hope to combat these diseases in a more targeted way.

A car tyre that never wears out

A second important line of research for Professor Sprakel involves the investigation of mechanical forces in biological systems. “When you train your muscles, they become stronger. I would like to know how that works, because synthetic materials become weaker when they are exposed to forces. The first step will thus involve measuring what happens in a muscle. We are currently developing sensors for measuring tiny, minuscule forces through such means as molecules that change colour when they are under pressure. We can use this knowledge to create sustainable synthetic materials, like a car tyre that becomes stronger when you drive on it, or paint that never fades.”

Biography

Joris Sprakel (1980, Oss) studied Food Technology in Wageningen and completed his doctoral research within the Physical Chemistry and Soft Matter chair group. The research, for which he was awarded his PhD in 2009 with a cum laude designation, earned him the Houwink Polymer Award from the Royal Netherlands Chemical Society (KNCV) and the Thesis Award from the Dutch Polymer Institute. Sprakel subsequently worked as a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University in Boston (USA), using a Rubicon grant that he received from the NWO. In 2011, Sprakel returned to the Netherlands on an NWO VENI grant to start a group as part of the Physical Chemistry and Soft Matter chair. This led to a number of scientific breakthroughs and accolades, including an NWO VIDI grant in 2017. On 1 March 2019, he was appointed as a Personal Professor of Physical Chemistry and Soft Matter.

Professor Sprakel will be inaugurated at 16:00 hrs on Thursday 20 February, in the university auditorium at Generaal Foulkesweg 1 in Wageningen. Journalists are welcome.