Bacteria can recognise hostile viruses because they steal pieces of DNA from viruses and store these in their 'memory'. Stan Brouns, microbiologist at Wageningen University, is examining how that mechanism works and on 28 November 2014 he heard that he will receive an ERC Starting Grant to continue this work. This European grant of € 1.5 million enables Brouns to do five years of research and to appoint a PhD candidate, a postdoc and an analyst to support him in doing so.
Immune system of bacteria
Research into the immune system of bacteria has been developing rapidly in recent years. This has taught us that bacteria steal DNA from viruses, which genes are involved in this process, where the collected virus particles are stored, and how bacteria use this ‘memory’ to also recognise heavily mutated viruses. The ‘memory’ is passed on to the offspring, giving them protection to viruses.
But much is still unknown, too. For example, how is the genetic information of viruses stored in the ‘hereditary memory’ and how do bacteria manage to also recognise highly mutated viruses based on ‘vague memories’ of a virus that came along generations ago?
Knowledge also useful for food industry
Brouns is studying these processes mainly because he is intrinsically interested in how bacteria and viruses are constantly trying to outsmart each other. However, the discoveries he does are also of great value to, for example, the food industry. Bacteria are essential for the production of many food products. Manufacturers of yogurt would undoubtedly like to know to which viruses their bacteria are resistant and what the chances are that a mutated virus breaks through the immune system of the bacteria they use. Thanks to the knowledge that Brouns develops, it may soon be possible to produce stronger bacteria for the food industry that are resistant to viruses that are currently deadly.
Brouns received many scholarships and awards
Brouns also received a Vidi grant in 2012 - and before that he received a Veni grant - to investigate the functioning of the immune system in bacteria. This has led to many new insights and some top publications in leading scientific journals. Brouns has thus proven to be an excellent researcher, which is an important criteria to qualify for a grant from the European Research Council.
“It is a self-reinforcing effect”, says Brouns. “These kinds of grants provide scientists the opportunity to do innovative research, resulting in scientific breakthroughs, which then increases the likelihood that new applications for personal grants are also approved.”