The most important tool of any chemist is the chemical bond. About 15 years ago a chemical bond was discovered in nature that does the exact opposite of the bonds that chemists make in the lab. These catch bonds becomes stronger the more they are stressed. The research group of Joris Sprakel, part of Physical Chemistry & Soft Matter, has secured EU funding of little under 2 million euros for research into this bond. This is through the most recent Consolidator Grant competition of the European Research Council (ERC).
Sprakel is joyed with the funding: “I want to understand how it’s possible that these natural bonds work completely differently than anything we can make ourselves. These catch bonds may seem exceptional, but are in fact used a lot by nature. I want to take this research a step further and try to actually imitate this in the lab.”
Screams to be understood
Sprakel thinks we still know surprisingly little about how these bonds work and why they are so widely used in nature. “I find that remarkable for something so fundamental to our entire field. The discovery of a bond that turns our existing knowledge upside down is crying out to be studied and understood.”
Challenge in chemistry
It may also have practical implications, he indicates. “A major challenge in chemistry is to mimic certain mechanical properties of biological materials so well that cells can be grown in the lab into functional tissues or organs, without these cells noticing that they are in a petri dish instead of in a living being. Recent insights show that these unique bonds, the so-called catch bonds, can play an important role in this process of tissue formation in nature.”
He continues: “If we can’t understand or imitate these catch bonds, then we can’t use their function to improve tissue culture. My hope is that in this project we learn what catch bonds do in this process and that we can copy them. For example, at the end of the project, we can use our synthetic catch bonds in collaboration with tissue culture experts, to see whether this development can help that field move forward.”
He nuances that this is really an aim far on the horizon. “I specifically want to advance our fundamental knowledge on the stability of chemical bonds.”
About ERC grants
The European Research Council, founded by the European Union in 2007, is the first European funding organization for excellent groundbreaking research. Each year, it selects and funds the very best, creative researchers of every nationality and age to carry out projects in Europe. It offers four core grant schemes: Start-up, Consolidator, Advanced and Synergy grants. With its complementary Proof of Concept grant scheme, the ERC helps beneficiaries bridge the gap between the beneficiaries’ groundbreaking research and the early stages of its commercialization.