WUR Research Award 2023 for discovery of bacterial immune system

March 10, 2023

PhD candidate Balwina Koopal received the WUR Research Award 2023 for her discovery of a new bacterial immune system. The University Fund Wageningen’s prize was presented during Wageningen University & Research’s 105th Dies Natalis. Koopal received the award for her interpretation of the function and effect of the so-called SPARTA system. The SPARTA system is a complex of enzymes that identifies and neutralises infections in bacteria. She also showed how this enzyme complex could be deployed in tests to identify infections in humans.

Like humans, bacteria have an immune system. It protects these single-cell organisms from plasmids and viruses that threaten them. Until Balwina Koopal presented her discovery in Cell, no one knew that the so-called SPARTA system, a specific argonaute protein complex, formed such a bacterial line of defence. More to the point, the function and purpose of this enzyme were completely unknown. Koopal’s multidisciplinary research uncovered the intricate workings of the SPARTA system and showed that it could be isolated and reprogrammed, making the system suited to screen donor blood for pathogens, for example.

The award was presented by Prof. Wouter Hendriks during Wageningen University & Research (WUR) 105th Dies Natalis celebration on 9 March. Koopal was presented with a certificate, a replica of the Wageningen Tree and a €2.500 cheque.

Fundamental research with interesting possibilities

An argonaute protein contains a small piece of guide RNA of DNA, which it uses to detect and, in some cases, slice invasive RNA or DNA with a similar sequence. Other argonaute proteins do the same to regulate gene expression or neutralise pathogens. Koopal demonstrated that the SPARTA system deploys a different strategy. Once the SPARTA protein complex has identified invasive DNA, it breaks down molecules relevant to the bacterium’s energy supply, causing the bacterium to perish. This may seem like a strange defence mechanism, but it prevents the disease from spreading to other bacteria. The SPARTA system thus functions as an immune system at a population level.

Dr Daan Swarts, leader of the research group where Koopal is working on her PhD, considers this an example of ‘how pioneering fundamental research opens the door to new applications.’ While Koopal aimed to uncover the workings of the argonaute protein, she also discovered ways to apply this knowledge. She proved that the enzyme could be isolated and that a new piece of guide RNA could be reprogrammed to identify different DNA sequences. Combining this with molecules that the SPARTA system changes into fluorescent marker molecules allows the system to be used to identify pathogens. Swarts registered a patent for this application, naming Koopal as co-inventor.

Research during the pandemic

The fact that Koopal conducted her research during the pandemic makes her results all the more impressive. She managed to work around the limited accessibility of laboratories and colleagues. Moreover, she was Swarts’ research group’s first PhD candidate. In this role, Koopal contributed significantly to the group’s infrastructure and new research methods. The study, published in April 2022, immediately had a significant impact. Koopal presented her findings at several international conferences, and the article was widely cited.