Dr. Henrike Niederholtmeyer receives ERC Starting Grant

Emmy Noether Research Group Leader at the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Biology in Marburg receives 1.5 Mio. Euro for the development and investigation of synthetic compartments

November 22, 2022

Cell-free systems are the area of research of Henrike Niederholtmeyer, who has been leading an Emmy Noether Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology since 2020. In the future, such systems could play an important role in biochemical and biotechnological applications. Now Henrike Niederholtmeyer has been awarded the prestigious ERC Starting Grant from the European Research Council - with which she hopes to broaden her research by adding a whole new aspect.

SYNSEMBL, the title of Dr. Niederholtmeyer's funded project, stands for cell-free synthesis and assembly of biomolecular condensates.

But what are these condensates? Henrike Niederholtmeyer explains: "Within the cell, many processes are running simultaneously in parallel. Compartments, i.e. the spatial control over biochemical processes, play an important role in this context. The compartments we want to use were discovered by cell biologists in cells. Here, proteins come together locally in high concentrations and form droplets or so-called condensates."  

In her group at the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology, Henrike Niederholtmeyer and her team have been studying cell-free reactions for some time. These are initially simple mixtures of enzymes and other molecules. In the funded project, the research team wants to use protein condensates to generate functional compartments for synthetic biology.  Such condensates, in fact, have some very attractive properties. They spontaneously self-assemble, but can also rapidly dissolve in response to a signal. They can help reactions run more efficiently or more specifically, or even allow for more complex reactions, as Henrike Niederholtmeyer says. "The special thing about the condensates is: they are programmable, which means they can specifically take up other proteins. We want to take advantage of this and turn the protein droplets into biochemical reactors in which reactions take place. We want to figure out how to modify the protein sequence in order to specifically change the properties of the droplets."

The group will use their already proven microfluidics technique, which will make cell-free production and analysis of the condensates possible. By running the reactions in tiny chambers and examining the condensates within, many different protein sequences can be compared rapidly. In the end, the researchers hope to understand more precisely how to engineer the properties and functions of the protein condensates. "Such protein condensates in cell-free systems or artificial cells could be used in biotechnology or as biomaterials in the future. But for that, we first need to understand better how their special properties influence internal processes."   

ERC Starting Grants are one of the four major funding programs of the European Research Council (ERC), the research funding arm of the European Union. Under the new EU -program "Horizon Europe", 636 million EUR will be invested in 400 outstanding projects by scientists and academics. The grants, with an average value of €1.5 million, are intended to help excellent and ambitious younger researchers (2-7 years after PhD) to start or further develop their projects and pursue their best ideas. The funded projects cover all research disciplines.

Henrike Niederholtmeyer studied biotechnology at the University of Münster and received her PhD in the same subject from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne in 2015. As a postdoc at the University of California in San Diego, she conducted research on cell-free systems at the Institute of Chemistry and Biochemistry there. Since 2020, she has headed the Emmy Noether Research Group "Cell-Free Synthetic Biology" at the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology in Marburg. From December 2022, she will be holding a professorship for synthetic biology at the TU Munich.


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