The VILLUM Experiment: DKK 71 million for 39 unorthodox research ideas

13.06.2017

Conversion of CO2 to climate-friendly material. Cars that change color. Systems that recognize insects without capturing them first. VILLUM FONDEN supports the wildest ideas from 39 bright minds within technical and scientific with DKK 71 million.

It is the first time that VILLUM FONDEN allocates grants within the VILLUM Experiment, which supports the quite unique research idea that challenges the norm and has the potential to fundamentally change the way we approach important topics.

DKK 71 million for 39 unorthodox and potentially groundbreaking experiments. Experiments that span widely in various ways: The researchers behind the experiments range from postdocs to professors - and among these are particularly many associate professors - from both the Technical University of Denmark, the University of Copenhagen, the University of Southern Denmark and Aarhus University. In addition, the degree of originality in the experiments spans wide, however all of them have a fundamental element of innovation - and a technical and scientific background.

The VILLUM Experiment

• Support for the bold research idea that would have difficulty fitting into the conventional peer-review funding system.
• Created for the very special research projects that challenge the norm and have the potential to fundamentally alter the way we approach important topics.
• Ensures that researchers dare to submit their most ambitious ideas without being pilloried by their peers who will be reviewing the proposals, applicants are anonymous to the reviewers. This is also introduced to reduce any bias from the reviewers.
• The reviewers are asked to emphasize the ideas they regard as being genuinely innovative. Perhaps only one in ten projects will prove capable of yielding something unique.
• Each of the reviewers have the opportunity to appoint one application with a desicive vote. If this happens, there must be quite significant arguments from the foundation’s board of directors to reject the project.
• The amount granted is DKK 1-2 million, which is to cover a research period of 1-2 years.
• The program is open to all researchers regardless of nationality and can be applied for by active researchers regardless of any age.

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Need for more funding sources

Not only are the projects experimental: The course of the selection of the experiments is new and different compared to typical research grants. The application is anonymous, and the reviewers have the opportunity to appoint an idea a dicisive vote. This is the idea that they think is extraordinary and which, no matter what others might think, must be selected.

"In an environment of peer reviews and strong competition, researchers may be cautious in launching their significantly different idea. The idea that you may not dare say aloud, which does not fit into the framework of research funding today. However, if you look back and look at the ideas that made a real paradigm shift, then it would have been hard to predict. There must be room for researchers with new ideas and an unexpected approach - and other ways of funding than through the recognized peer review process,” says Thomas Sinkjær, Director of Science, VILLUM FONDEN.

Focus on the good idea

Professor Marcos Gonzalez-Gaitan from Université de Genève in Switzerland is one of the external reviewers who participated in the selection of the experiments:

"It has been exciting and challenging to read the anonymous applications. It is a completely new way to access the research. A very interesting "experiment" that has expanded my scientific horizon and forced me to focus solely on the research idea. Great praise to VILLUM FONDEN for their willingness to take risks. For who knows maybe only one of 10 experiments will turn out to create something unique.”

“A single experiment is worth more than 1000 expert views”.

The founder of THE VELUX FOUNDATIONS, Villum Kann Rasmussen, graduate engineer, conceived this motto. As an imaginative and innovative inventor, he was continually experimenting. Tables, chairs, coffee machines, wind turbines and, of course, his most famous invention, the VELUX roof window.

"Villum Kann Rasmussen held bright initiatives and bright ideas in the highest regard. With the VILLUM Experiment, we hope to award funding to those bright minds that might come up with a wild new and bold research project. The researchers, who see that things can connect in ways other than we believe, and can conduct the bold projects that may confirm or dismiss their wild idea," says Jens Kann-Rasmussen, chair of VILLUM FONDEN.

The 39 VILLUM Experiments:

Technical University of Denmark
3D reconstruction of neuronal connectivity in the mouse brain

Tim Dyrby, DTU Compute, DKK 2 million

The brain ensures body function, cognitive abilities and reactions to sensory inputs in our daily lives. Key to normal brain function is the physiology of signaling between brain regions that are functionally connected in the brain network. Anatomically, a brain connection is comprised of a bundle of axons, almost like electrical cables, but only a few micrometers in diameters. Any failure to the brain network can introduce an imbalance in brain physiology and lead to disability, cognitive dysfunction, lifestyle diseases etc. Today, only a single brain connection can be imaged at a time when investigating the brain network. In this VILLIUM Experiment we will explore a new laser based imaging contrast. This technique uniquely holds the potential for mapping all brain connections of the intact mouse brain in 3D – uniquely, in a micrometer image resolution.

 

A Diamond-Encased Bose-Einstein Condensate

Haitham El-Ella, DTU Physics, DKK 1.9 million

Interesting and surprising phenomena appear when we zoom in on the smallest parts of matter. As these length-scales quantum mechanics governs the interactions and motions, using physical laws that are counter-intuitive to what we observe in macroscopic-scale interactions.

For many years, scientists have explored the borderline between quantum mechanics and classical mechanics using so-called Bose-Einstein condensates, where particles can show quantum mechanical behavior at macroscopic scales. The best-known example is an atomic gas cloud cooled down to a temperature close to absolute zero.

This VILLUM Experiment attempts to generate a novel type of Bose-Einstein condensate using electron spins in custom-engineered diamond crystals. The risky part of this experiment is the difficulty in engineering suitable diamonds with unique atomic-scale features such as atomic layers where all C-atoms are replaced by N-atoms, and suitably integrated resonators that can simultaneously control all the N-atom electron spins.

If the project is successful, novel properties of solid-state Bose-Einstein condensates can be demonstrated, generating new insights on the interface between quantum and classical physics, while even the partial success of this experiment is expected to aid the development of novel quantum technologies.

 

ArthroLube: A new approach to the biocompatibility and longevity of articular joint implants

Seunghwan Lee, DTU Mechanical Engineering, DKK 2 million

As prosthetic joints function under persistent loading and shear stress, the wear of the implant materials is unavoidable. Wear particles released into the tissues often trigger a cascade of immune responses, leading to failure of the implants. Thus, biocompatibility and wear-resistance are two faces of the same problem for artificial joint implants. In this VILLUM Experiment ‘ArthroLube’, we attempt to solve this problem by administering fluidic lubricants to the prosthetic joints, rather than by developing new materials for the implants. This approach has not been possible until recently, mainly due to the lack of lubricants compatible with the human body. Based on recent studies showing effective lubrication by various macromolecules in aqueous environment, the project will explore the feasibility of extending this approach to prosthetic joints and development of injectable medicine.

 

DireWaves - Disarming resistant microbes with resonant fields

Nikolaj Sorgenfrei Blom, DTU Chemical Engineering, DKK 2 million 

Resistant bacteria such as MRSA pose a rising, global challenge. For almost a century we have had great success at disarming harmful bacteria with chemical compounds such as penicillin. However, can we keep on developing new drugs when the bacteria develop resistance again and again?

Can we use physics principles to disarm bacteria?

Resonance effects are known from the ability of the opera singer to splinter a crystal glass with her voice and the effect of the marching soldiers across a bridge. Wave forces, that when isolated are weak, but in unison can have strong effects.

The VILLUM Experiment The DireWaves project (Disarming resistant microbes with resonant waves) will study if weak, but resonant electromagnetic waves can affect and perhaps become a future tool in the arms race against resistant bacteria.

Electrochemical NOx-reduction with a novel tri-functional cathode

Kent Kammer Hansen, DTU Energy, DKK 1.5 million

A radically different technology for Diesel exhaust gas abatement is electrochemical reduction of NOx based on an oxide ionic conductor. Here electrical energy is used directly to reduce the NOx at the cathode, eliminating the need of a reducing agent. In order to make electrochemical reduction of NOx sustainable the power consumption must be lowered and the activity at low temperature must be increased. In this VILLUM Experiment a novel type of electrode material is suggested in order to fulfil the technological requirements. The electrode has three functionalities; it contains an electronic conducting phase, a material that can take up large quantities of NOx like BaO, and exsoluted (silver taken out of the main phase as small particles on the surface of the electrode) as an oxidation catalysts. This novel type of electrode is thought to have the desired properties for efficient electrochemical reduction of NOx.

 

Hands-off biology: towards full automation of life science experiments in the cloud

Nikolaus Sonnenschein, DTU Biosustain, DKK 2 millon

A number of biotech companies have recently started to offer cloud-based experimentation as a service to life scientists inspired by Amazon’s AWS (Amazon Web Services), which provides cloud infrastructure as a service (IaaS) to companies like Netflix and hosts most of today’s internet.

This makes one wonder if life science can be conducted virtually from the comfort of a desk without expensive equipment akin to IT companies no longer owning server rooms. While increase in experimental throughput, democratisation of expensive equipment, and more time spent on data interpretation instead of tedious pipetting are all attractive prospects of this vision, we think the greatest benefit of virtual biotechnology will be the solution to the ongoing reproducibility crisis that is harming the life sciences at the moment.

Through a series of exploratory experiments of increasing complexity, this VILLUM Experiment will determine to which extent this vision can already be achieved and which obstacles to overcome in the future.

In situ solution synthesis and 3D structuring of multi-property nanocomposites

Roar R. Søndergaard, DTU Energy, DKK 2 million

Normally it is not possible to control the spacial placement of components in a solution. We cannot make all the pulp from the orange juice go only to the left corner of the glass, and if we mix orange and grape juice we certainly cannot sort the pieces of pulp so that the orange is at the left side and the grape on the right side.

This VILLUM Experiment is about the use of light and sound to trap, sort and up-concentrating mixtures of components in solution, and thereafter locking these in a 3D polymer structure by selective light induced polymerization. Different properties at a miniature level can be implemented in the 3D structure by moving around the sorted components. Realisation will open up new possibilities for structuring and integration of materials which could have a huge impact on areas such as metamaterials, integrated optics, microelectronics, and emerging hybrid technologies aiming towards more futuristic ideas such as cloaking devices or remotely controlled micro-bots for in vivo surgery.

 

 

Plasmon-heated nano-tip: A lightsaber for nanoscience

Xiaolong Zhu, DTU Nanotech, DKK 1.7 million

The aim of this VILLUM Experiment is to push the boundary for confined heating of materials. Laser heating can not be done more accurately than an area of some hundred nanometers in diameter, which is a large area when working with, for example, nanomaterials and molecules. This makes it difficult to control local effects that could otherwise be utilised in new technology.

The project will try to combine advanced plasmon technology and scanning probe microscopy, which can make it possible to heat materials with an extreme atomic level resolution. If this experiment succeeds, a groundbreaking tool has been developed with wide application in catalysis, synthesis, nanotechnology and biotechnology.

Sugar harvesting from plant veins (SHARP)

Kaare Hartvig Jensen, DTU Physics, DKK 2 million

Strong demand for alternatives to fossil fuels continues to increase the volume of sugar derived from plants used in biofuel production. The most common biofuel today is ethanol produced from corn starch or cane sugar by fermentation. This claims a significant portion of agricultural land with detrimental effects on the availability of land and cost of food.

The hypothesis in this VILLUM Experiment is that sugars can be harvested directly from cells in plant veins, thus obviating the need for harvesting, transporting and processing of crops for biofuels. This will provide access to vast untapped resources of sugar in the boreal forests of the northern hemisphere which cannot sustain agriculture.

Using needles inspired by insects that feed on sweet sap in plant veins, we will attempt to extract sugars directly from living cells, thus providing access to a completely new source of biomass.

Turning x-ray microscopy inside out

Hugh Simons, DTU Physics, DKK 1.6 million

X-ray tomography lets us see tiny details deep inside materials, minerals and living creatures down to the thickness of a human hair. But seeing details smaller than this currently requires destroying our subject, either by cutting a small piece out of it, or by scanning it with an intense beam of focused x-rays.

This VILLUM Experiment will try to develop a new type of microscope that isn’t destructive. Rather than focusing the incoming x-rays onto the subject, it will instead focus the transmitted x-rays after the subject, avoiding the damage caused by such intense radiation. If successful, this new microscope would be able to make 3D movies of the nano-scale processes happening deep inside the subject a thousand times more detailed than x-ray tomography – all without inflicting any damage.

 

The University of Southern Denmark
A DNA molecular motor

Poul Nielsen, Department of Physics, Chemistry and Pharmacy, DKK 1.8 million

An intriguing goal of nanotechnology is to produce nanoscale machines, which can be used for both tracing and curing diseases in the body without the need for surgery. To realizse this vision the development of a molecular motor is a crucial step. The motor can act as a molecular propeller by performing a circular mechanical motion which can be remotely controlled.

 DNA is the molecule storing the genetic information in all life, but it is also an excellent material for nanotechnology. It is programmable, easily synthesized and self-assembled, and it is also non-toxic. With this VILLUM Experiment, we suggest that a molecular motor can be built by DNA and driven by chemical reactions, light or other stimuli. We envision that this unique approach can lift the concept of molecular machines from a groundbreaking but narrow chemical concept of limited use into a future where nanomachines are actually realized in medicine.

Endolith Bioculture in 3D Printed Environments (EndoBio3D)

Morten Andersen, Department of Chemical Engineering, DKK 1.7 million

This VILLUM Experiment will focus on culturing and studying organisms that live within rocks, called endoliths, by replicating their natural habitats with 3D printed inorganic materials. These lifeforms are highly interesting. They are involved in the erosion of rocks and in soil formation, they are thought to have been some of the earliest life on earth and possibly on other planets and they likely contain a wealth of new useful biological compounds. Unfortunately these organisms are naturally difficult to culture and study. Our new idea is to take methods from regenerative medicine where ceramic bone implants are made and study bone cells within these and then apply these techniques to the creation of endolithic habitats and the study of these organisms. By doing so, we will enable the culture and study of endoliths and potentially also their exploitation.

Integrated Molecular Plasmon Upconverter for Low-cost, Scalable, and Efficient Organic Photovoltaics (IMPULSE-OPV)

Jonas Sandby Lissau, The Mads Clausen Institute, DKK 1.8 million

This VILLUM Experiment addresses the fundamental limitation on the solar cell efficiency by exploring a method for exploiting a great fraction of low-energy sunlight photons that are transmitted and lost in traditional solar cell designs. The possibility of conducting plasmon-enhanced molecular up-conversion of sunlight inside an organic solar cell will be investigated. We aim at redefining the theoretical maximum efficiency of organic photovoltaics (OPV) by frequency up-conversion and subsequent absorption of photons with energies below the absorption threshold of OPV. The method applies the quantum properties of the light absorbing molecules in converting two low-energy photons into a single high-energy photon. This novel approach could significantly increase the efficiency of OPV, making this low-cost lightweight technology an important contributor in the transition to renewable power sources.

University of Copenhagen
A unique technique, combined with smart structural design to develop a new class of biobased fiber composite material

Anand Ramesh Sanadi, Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management, DKK 1.6 million

Many composite wood fiber materials (e.g. plywood and fiberboard) for building materials/construction, furniture and interior design contain toxic formaldehyde which acts as a glue. This VILLUM Experiment aims to develop a new class of sustainable materials by replacing formaldehyde (and similar crosslinked polymers) with non-toxic linear polymers. The replacement is far from trivial as it requires a full understanding and control of linear polymers on the one hand and new methods and techniques for combining them with wood fiber on the other. Some very preliminary work suggests that it might be possible to develop these new materials; however significant exploratory work needs to be conducted before we can confirm the hypothesis.

A universal approach for structure determination of peptides in small to medium size proteins by X-ray diffraction

Leila Lo Leggio, Department of Chemistry, DKK 2 million

Proteins are the ‘workhorses’ of living cells: they digest food, transport oxygen and allow our muscles to contract. Knowledge of the three-dimensional structure of proteins at an atomic level is an essential prerequisite of a modern understanding of how life works, of curing diseases and of sustainable industrial processes. X-ray crystallography is the most used technique for determining protein structures, however this requires that proteins can form crystals with a very regular arrangement of the proteins. The crystallisation is a bottleneck, which for each individual protein can take months, years or even prove impossible. The aim of this VILLUM Experiment is to overcome the need for crystals of the protein of interest, by creating an universal host crystal system instead, in which large peptides and small to medium size proteins can be incorporated as guests. This would be a major breakthrough in the field. We will attempt to prove that this can work in principle, using both computational and experimental approaches.

Beyond the genome: Re-theorising the cellular system

Alexandra Muñoz, Department of Mathematical Sciences, DKK 2 million

This VILLUM Experiment challenges the central dogma of molecular biology—a paradigm that places primacy on gene-protein interactions and the biomolecules that enact them. Are there aspects of the system that resist such characterisation? During the extreme genomic instability exhibited by cancers, the genome changes every cell division has numerous extra chromosomes, and yet still exhibits functional and morphological stability. How is this possible in a system generated by landscapes of gene-protein interactions?

Through experimentation and theory, a new model of the cellular system will be developed.  The model will abstract cellular function beyond specific proteins and genes, to more general terms so that regions of equivalent biological activity can be described using areas of mathematics such as topology and category theory. This project has the potential to redefine the cell in new terms and provide a broader understanding of cellular equilibrium.

Deciphering the ribosome code

Sophia Häfner, Biotech Research & Innovation Centre, DKK 1.7 million

The ribosome is the cell's protein factory and consists of 4 ribosomal RNA molecules and about 80 proteins. Despite the crucial importance of the ribosome for the decoding of our genetic information, there are major gaps in our knowledge of how the ribosome is modified to handle translation of specific mRNAs. My preliminary data show that the ribosomal RNA is subjected to some chemical modifications, and my hypothesis is that these modifications are regulatory and significant for which proteins are produced.

In this project, I use human embryonic stem cells as model systems by differentiating them into the 3 embryonic germ layers. I have completed the mapping of ribosome modifications in 3 pluripotent stem cell lines, as well as in differentiated endoderm, ectoderm and mesoderm representatives for all 3 cell lines. The results show very convincingly that the modification pattern of the ribosome  changes dynamically and is reproducibly depending on the differentiation pathway. This in itself is a groundbreaking result and indicates that there is a "ribosome code" that controls the structure of the ribosome.

I now wish to carry out genetic studies where I manipulate the ribosome modification pattern in order to demonstrate a causal link between the modifications and the translation pattern of the ribosome. If the hypothesis of a ribosome code is correct, this will provide a groundbreaking new insight into cell translation. It will also enable optimisation of the ribosome for specific purposes, such as disease control or production of biologics.

Elements from the origin and evolution of early life

Tue Hassenkam, Department of Chemistry, DKK 1.7 million

We have access to miniscule amounts of life’s earliest remains, trapped inside 3.7 billion-year-old mineral time capsules. With this VILLUM Experiment we wish to apply a new method and develop it to analyse the tiny (single cell size) remains of biological material in situ inside these capsules. The method has never been used on this type of samples before and could potentially provide a whole new set of evidences for life. We can potentially determine the elemental composition of early life. This composition can provide clues to the early evolutionary stages of life. For instance, one of the early stages of life is believed to be based on RNA and not DNA. We wish to extend this method to other samples in the history of life, from the carbonaceous meteors that brought the building blocks of life to samples from Mars that might hold traces of extinct life.

Harvesting light to convert carbon dioxide into green materials using a unique two-species adaptive evolution approach

Simon Dusséaux, Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, DKK 1.7 million

Sunlight, an unlimited source of free energy, can be used by photosynthetic organisms, together with CO2 to produce useful compounds in a sustainable and environmentally-friendly manner. However, the productivity of such production systems has so far been very low. This VILLUM Experiment will investigate this long-lasting problem in an unprecedented manner by developing a synthetic multi-species community.

Microbial communities composed of autotroph (producers) and heterotroph (consumers) organisms are common in nature and exemplify that inter-species cooperation can surpass the limitations of individual organisms. A unique continuous culture reactor will be designed and used to perform adaptive evolution on both the autotroph and the heterotroph partners simultaneously to build a strong mutualistic relationship between the two.

As a result, a powerful modular co-culture system could be developed to provide efficient light-driven production of a large panel of chemicals. The uncertain nature of the methodology proposed makes it a particularly high-risk/high-gain project that can lay the foundation for the development of a whole new generation of biological production technologies.

Instant architect of the wall: is plant body shaped by an elusive cell wall-located pathway?

Jozef Mravec, Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, DKK 2 million

This VILLUM Experiment questions the common theory for the role of auxin in plants. Auxin is a plant hormone which plays a crucial role for the growth processes and the shape of plants, e.g. development of roots and movement towards light. Auxin is known to regulate elaborated signaling pathways which activate genes in the nucleus of the plant cell. The researchers behind this project have preliminary data which indicates that auxin also plays a role directly in the cell wall, where the hormone can rapidly change the cell wall architecture. Such a theory is controversial, however if it is true it could revolutionise our knowledge on how plants control their growth and appearance.

 

MicroPlastDynamics

Thorbjørn Joest Andersen, Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management, DKK 1.3 million

Micro-plastics are widespread in the marine environment, however their physical behaviour and interaction with other biological and non-biological suspended particles are largely unknown. The detailed examination of this interaction and its effect on the dispersal and deposition of the particles will be a major step forward in our understanding of the spreading of micro-plastics in the marine environment. Micro-plastics are typically positively or neutrally buoyant and the working hypothesis of this VILLUM Experiment is that the sedimentation depends strongly on the aggregation into larger aggregates composed of various combinations of sediments, plastics, algae, bacteria and maybe other substances too. This possible interaction will be examined using a recently developed particle camera. We hope to be able to verify the results of our experiments by tracing the historical deposition of micro-plastics in Danish waters in sediment cores.

Na+-K+ ATPase: The predominant consumer of ATP in the brain, studied at the single molecule level

Dimitrios Stamou, Department of Chemistry, DKK 2 million

Transporters are a diverse family of proteins that work as ‘gate keepers’ to cells. Transporters can distinguish specific molecules (e.g. nutrients from toxins) and selectively up-concentrate them in or out of the cell, which is essential for maintaining life. Until recently it was thought that transporters work 24/7. However, we recently developed a method to measure transport at the single molecule level and surprisingly found out that transporters actually take short and long breaks from their “work”. This turned out to be of crucial importance because we could for the first time distinguish conditions (e.g. different drugs) that affect their working schedule from others that change their working efficiency. With this VILLUM Experiment we want to extend the project to study the molecule that consumes ~70% of ATP in the brain, the Na+/K+ ATPase. This project will likely have far reaching biological and potentially therapeutical consequences.

 

Persistent homology as a new tool to understand structural phase transitions

Kell Mortensen, Niels Bohr Institute, DKK 2 million

Large varieties of soft matter materials have a crystalline structure similar to classical materials, where the basic structure can be described in relatively simple geometric terms. However, while the macroscopic properties of classical materials can be largely understood on the basis of this crystalline symmetry, this is not the case for soft materials. Soft materials typically consist of domains of different materials that are wrapped complexly between each other. Although this complex of domains has an apparently simple geometry, the absolute form plays a subtle role and is crucial to the most interesting characteristics. While crystallographic methods are developed to effectively describe and classify the geometry of crystalline materials, we still lack an analogous method for describing the form of domains, so-called topology. Based on modern computational topology we propose to develop methods to predict and characterise materials effectively with regard to topology and we hypothesize that based on such theory, it will be possible in the evaluation of experimental scattering data to provide direct insight into both material symmetry and topology.

 

Physics of the unexpected: Understanding tipping points in natural systems

Peter Ditlevsen, Niels Bohr Institute, DKK 1.6 million

The natural history of the Earth has been characterized by abrupt changes in climate and ecology. Small perturbations have resulted in large responses, like a tipping balance. This is tipping point. Our models show a world in balance, where small perturbations give proportionally small responses. This can be compared to our society, where supply and demand keep the economy in balance. We believe. But, suddenly a small imbalance leads to a cascade that brings the world economy into a deep financial crisis, that nobody predicted. We now experience anthropogenic climate change. Our climate models show that the increased atmospheric CO2 concentration leads to a correspondingly global temperature increase. However, past abrupt climate changes show that the climate system can experience tipping points, where an imbalance leads to disproportionate abrupt climate changes. In order to understand and hopefully be able to predict these abrupt changes, we will run climate model experiments, with the model in unbalance, that it to reproduce the past abrupt changes. If the model cannot do that, we will search for the physical mechanisms in the real world that the models lack to describe.

Pushing exploration of Human Evolution Backward by Palaeoproteomics

Enrico Cappellini, The Natural History Museum of Denmark, DKK 2 million

We ignore how our species is genetically related to extinct hominids other than Neanderthals and Denisovans, such as Homo erectus and Australopithecines. This is because they faced extinction in epochs so remote and/or they lived in areas so warm that their DNA is, as far as we know, fully and irreversibly, degraded. In this VILLUM Experiment I propose to overcome this limit by using proteomics to: (i) sequence proteins extracted from fossil bone and teeth, and (ii) measure evolutionary changes in amino acid sequences to reconstruct the evolutionary history of our lineage. Deep-time palaeoproteomics will enable: (a) unprecedented access to genetic evidence from epochs so far considered impossible to routinely access by biomolecular investigation, and (b) molecular-based investigation of major evolutionary processes so far intractable for molecular phylogenetics.

 

Quickest detection problems going nonlinear

Jesper Lund Pedersen, Department of Mathematical Sciences, DKK 1.8 million

Quickest detections problems arise from the desire to detect changes of a noisily observed signal as quickly as possible after they occur in real time. For example, a submarine which suddenly turns on its engines, and a sonar system which must detect the appearing signals/sounds generated by the submarine in the background noise of the sea. If the sonar is too hasty, the risk of a false detection of the submarine is high. On the other hand if the sonar is too wary, the delay to correct detection of the submarine is substantial. In either case there is a loss and the problem is to attain a tradeoff (objective criterion) between the two contradicting performance measures. This VILLUM Experiment will open a new and novel way (i.e. nonlinear method) of looking at this tradeoff. If successful, the project might lead to much faster and more efficient algorithms of quickest detection.

 

Superradiant atomic clock with continuous interrogation

Jan W. Thomsen, Niels Bohr Institute, DKK 1.7 million

State-of-the-art optical atomic clocks have a stability and precision on the fractional level of 10e-18 corresponding to a clock that loses about half a second on the time scale of the age of the Universe some 13 billion years. These clocks, however, are severely limited by laser frequency noise which prohibits them from reaching astonishing fractional instabilities of 10e-19-10e-20, where mind-blowing applications and groundbreaking physics flourish.

Tardigrade CRISPR genome engineering: Exploring the secrets of latent life and extreme stress tolerance in animals

Nadja Møbjerg Jørgensen, Department of Biology, DKK 1.9 million

Could a handful of genes be responsible for the extremotolerant abilities seen among certain animals and if so can unique adaptations, such as tolerance towards freezing and complete dehydration be transferred to other organisms? The objective of this VILLUM Experiment is to apply new gene modification technology (CRISPR-Cas) on tardigrades in order to edit genes presumably involved in unique tardigrade adaptations, with the long-term potential of using the obtained knowledge to transfer adaptations and enhance tolerance, towards e.g. freezing and desiccation in other organisms. The experiment has the risk of failure as CRISPR-Cas technology is still at an early stage of development and the technology has not, yet, been applied to tardigrades. Moreover, the unique adaptations of tardigrades may be more complex than we here hypothesize, thus relying on more than just a handful of genes.

The adult Y-animal - a 100+ year old enigma in marine biology

Jørgen Olesen, The Natural History Museum of Denmark, DKK 2 million

Can it really be true that larvae exist in the marine environment for which the adult forms remain completely unknown? They are crustacean larvae, known for more than 100 years and found in oceans all over the world, sometimes with surprisingly high diversity.

With this VILLUM Experiment we aim to address this 100 years old enigma in marine zoology with a variety of modern techniques such as (1) comparative transcriptomics thereby searching for known genes for parasitism, (2) next generation sequencing of possible hosts in search of y-larva DNA, and (3) metamorphosis studies where moulting hormones will be applied to already progressed developmental stages thereby hopefully forcing the development some steps further.

During the work we will document and describe the very large diversity of y-larvae (possibly >40 forms) above coral reefs in Japanese and Taiwanese waters. With the applied techniques we consider the chances of finding the Y-adult good. But should we fail, then, by making the enormous diversity of y-larvae available in the literature, we will have provided a much better basis for future attempts for solving the riddle.

 

Was animal domestication driven by gut microbiome humanisation?

Marcus Thomas Gilbert, The Natural History Museum of Denmark, DKK 2 million

Is modification of a wild animal’s gut microbiome a more plausible explanation for how our ancestors’ undertook the first domestication steps, than conventional explanations such as selecting on pre-existing genomic variation? This VILLUM Experiment will characterise the microbiomes of paired feral and domestic cats to identify whether significant differences exist between their microbial communities and then document the behavioural consequences through microbiome manipulation in colony-bred cats. If correct, our hypothesis stands to revolutionise not only our understanding of the domestication process, but provides a foundation for re-interpreting numerous other processes within basic and applied sciences.

 

Aarhus University
Automatic Insect Detection (AID)

Toke Thomas Høye, Department of Bioscience, DKK 2 million

Understanding how species and ecosystems respond to environmental changes is a key challenge in ecology. Insects make up about 80% of all known species and play a critical role in ecosystems worldwide. Yet, our ability to study insects under natural conditions is limited by inefficient sampling methods. In this VILLUM Experiment, we investigate the possibility that insects and related organisms can be detected and identified using computer vision and machine learning. We will develop and test solutions for the automatic detection of beetles, flies, bees and spiders from images recorded in the lab and in the species’ natural environment. The solutions have the potential to transform research on this economically and ecologically important group of organisms and will greatly improve assessments of biological responses to land use and climate change.

Exploring the oil degradation capacity of microbes in pristine Arctic environments

Leendert Vergeynst, Department of Bioscience, DKK 1.8 million

Can microorganisms reduce the impact of oil spills in pristine Arctic environments? The growing interests in shipping and offshore extraction of oil in the Arctic increase the risk of marine oil spills. Natural oil degrading bacteria have played a major role in removing oil compounds from oil spills such as the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon oil disasters. However, in the Arctic, bacteria might be not well adapted to oil degradation.

This VILLUM Experiment begins with a fundamentally new understanding of how hydrocarbon degradation takes place in biofilms to investigate oil degradation in the icy waters of Northern Greenland. To do so, I will conduct unprecedented field experiments that, if successful, hold enormous promises for identifying the most realistic oil degradation patterns and microbial communities that can mediate oil spills in some of the world’s most vulnerable ecosystems.

 

FISHing for the ancestors of the eukaryotic cell

Kasper Urup Kjeldsen, Department of Bioscience, DKK 2 million

With this VILLUM Experiment, we will explore the earliest evolution of the eukaryotic cell by investigating the cellular ultrastructure of its extant prokaryotic ancestors. Our work is focused on a group of uncultivated archaea, which were recently discovered in the seafloor, and which represent the closest prokaryotic relatives of eukaryotes. Based on environmental genomics data we hypothesize that these archaea possess a eukaryotic-type cytoskeleton and membrane trafficking systems - if confirmed by microscopic ultrastructure analysis this would dramatically change our definition of the prokaryotic cell and our understanding of the early evolution of eukaryotes. Microscopic studies of these archaea are however challenged by the fact that they have not been cultivated. Therefore we will develop a novel cultivation-independent technique that allows us to target and physically isolate the cells from the sediment for subsequent microscopic analysis.

New letters to the DNA alphabet

Witold Kot, Institut for Miljøvidenskab, DKK 2 million

DNA functions as an information carrier in all living organisms on our planet. Even though the genetic code has only four letters, or bases (A,T, C and G), it can translate to immense biodiversity around us. But is it only 4 letters? Maybe we are overlooking some of the important information by using our standard methodologies of examining DNA? This project is aimed at exploring the role of queuosine (Q), or related to it compounds, as alternative letters in DNA of newly discovered viruses of bacteria. The key questions addressed include which letter is being replaced with Q, what is the exact mechanism of its synthesis inside the host cell and how is it accomplished by this group of viruses? This VILLUM Experiment can lead to important discoveries concerning use of hyper modified bases and how it affects the very core processes in biology.

 

Novel deep penetration hyperthermia methodology: can we treat deep-seated tumors with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)?

Mads Sloth Vinding, Department of Clinical Medicine, DKK 2 million

Cancer research has shown improved results of radio and chemo therapy, when combined with hyperthermia. Deep-seated brain tumours, often associated with devastating prognoses, are however, difficult to treat with hyperthermia.

The examination method of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) provides anatomical and functional images for diagnoses, treatment planning, progress monitoring and facilitates numerous research studies. Tomorrows MRI technology seeks to improve images, through enhanced contrast and higher sensitivity to subtle details.

In this VILLUM Experiment we investigate if side effects of the new technology; demanding attention to heat deposition, can be reversed for therapeutic benefits, that is, through controlled and focal hyperthermia.

If the MRI system may comprise a therapeutic purpose, this cancer treatment can potentially gain precision.

Tunable photonic materials inspired by chameleons and copepods

Henrik Birkedal, Department of Chemistry, DKK 2 million

Imagine that you can change the color of objects such as your car at will; the goal of this experiment is to make this possible. To achieve this goal, we will be inspired by the skin of certain animals, such as squids and copepods, that can change their color by tuning materials in their skin in a smart way. We will make bioinspired adaptable photonic materials in a completely new way by incorporating the principles used in the biological organisms into our synthetic materials. These principles have only just been discovered and are highly unconventional in that they rely on changes in the water balance around the photonic material in the animal. If successful, this VILLUM Experiment will initiate new ways of designing adaptable optical materials that can be used in ‘soft’ materials systems that could include new sensor materials for biomedical applications.

 

Quantum nature of retinal proteins

Lars Henrik Andersen, Department of Physics and Astronomy, DKK 1.5 million

Many processes in nature are driven by light quanta (photons) that are absorbed in large biological complexes. A well-known example is the process of vision in the retina, which starts with the absorption of a photon in the molecule retinal, which is the light-absorbing part in opsin proteins. The very same retinal molecule is 'tuned' by the protein structure to absorb light of different colors, which forms the basis of color vision. The vision process has other interesting aspects. It is extremely effective, in the sense that the light absorption in retinal could cause many other processes, which would not be registered as light by the eye. It is also part of the fastest processes known in nature. In this VILLUM Experiment, focus is on the quantum mechanical aspect, which is operative in the retinal molecule. We wish to answer whether the seemingly optimised conditions in opsins may be attributed specifically to quantum mechanics operating in retinal molecule. We want to answer whether the seemingly optimised conditions in opsins may be attributed specifically to quantum mechanics operating in retinal molecule.

Searching for Photosynthetic Archaea in Arctic Permafrost

Yonghui Zeng, Department of Environmental Science, DKK 2 million

The early evolution of photosynthesis remains a long-standing enigma. Among the three domains of life, it has been well established that photosynthesis first evolved in bacteria billions of years ago and later spread into Eukarya, whereas all members of Archaea are thought to lack the photosynthetic capability, without any plausible explanations. Here we aim to challenge this notion by proposing that photosynthesis instead first evolved in more primitive Archaea and that such photosynthetic archaeal cells are still preserved in ecosystems of modern cryosphere awaiting discovery. In this VILLUM Experiment samples collected in the northwestern part of Greenland will be studied by DNA sequencing in the search for genomic proofs of photosynthetic Archaea.

 

Solid-state QED with STM

Richard Balog, Department of Physics and Astronomy, DKK 1.8 million

With this VILLUM Experiment I will deposit nanoparticles, nanometer size metallic spheres, onto a surface and use the atomically sharp tip of a scanning tunneling microscope as a “nano-finger” to position them with atomic precision into predefined structures. These nanoparticle structures will act as an ordered array of  “nanosized-mirrors” focusing the light into tiny regions enclosed by the nanoparticles. Intensifying the light into small regions is highly desirable for the development of novel electronic components that can efficiently convert visible light into electric signals and vice versa, such as e.g. nanolasers, on-chip single photon sources, etc.