The 2021 University Fund Wageningen (UFW) Research Award was granted to dr Irene Sánchez-Andrea on the 103rd Dies Natalis. Dr Sánchez-Andrea is an assistant professor at the Wageningen University & Research (WUR) Laboratory for Microbiology. She won the prize for her research on a new CO2 capturing pathway in microbes. She published her findings in the leading journal Nature Communications in 2020.
The award ceremony was broadcast during the Dies Natalis, held entirely online this year. Sánchez-Andrea was awarded a certificate, a replica of the “Wageningen tree” sculpture and a sum of 2500 euros.
During a three-year collaboration with UC Berkley and the Max Planck Institute, Sánchez-Andrea successfully proved a seventh pathway for CO2 fixation. Only six pathways were known to capture CO2 in plants and micro-organisms. Various research groups have attempted to prove the existence of a seventh pathway since the eighties of the last century without success.
During research on the D. desulfuricans bacteria, Sánchez-Andrea found that this bacteria is capable of capturing CO2, but that this did not involve any of the known pathways. Through computer analysis of biological data, she was able to show that this process involved a new method of CO2 capture through the formation of formate and glycine. These are non-organic carbon sources. Sánchez-Andrea described the discovery in the publication: “The reductive glycine pathway allows autotrophic growth of Desulfovibrio desulfuricans”.
This new discovery is not just of great scientific value; the practical applications also appear to be very interesting. It is one of the most energy-efficient methods of capturing CO2 and could be applied to transform CO2 into renewable chemicals and fuels.
The jury called Sánchez-Andrea’s research a textbook-altering discovery. ‘The study opens the way to applied research in which this method of CO2-fixation could be used in the production of biomass and renewable chemicals and biofuels. This is a fabulous example of curiosity and hypothesis-driven fundamental research with huge application potential.’
The jury also expressed admiration for her passionate multidisciplinary collaboration within and outside of the university to find answers to her research questions.
On the Research Award
The University Fund Wageningen grants the Research Award every year. The award is meant for young researchers (under 40) who have published an original and excellent research article in the year leading up to the award. The jury for 2020 was made up of prof. Dr ir Alfons Oude Lansink, jury chair; dr. Daan Swarts, winner of the 2015 Research Award; prof. Dr Erik van der Linden, prof. Dr Aarti Gupta, dr Folkert Boersma, dr Charlotte Gommers and dr ir Sonja de Vries.