At the start of this academic year, Profs David Alsteens and Patricia Luis Alconero each landed an ERC Starting Grant. The former is a researcher at the Life Sciences Institute and the latter is a researcher at the Institute of Mechanics, Materials and Civil Engineering (iMMC).
F.R.S.-FNRS Research Associate Prof. David Alsteens researches how viruses bind to and infect our cells. He focuses, he explains, ‘especially on rotaviruses, which are responsible for gastroenteritis in children, and reoviruses, which are suspected of playing a role in gluten intolerance.’ He received the European Council Research grant in September to support this research.
Two types of microscope
An engineer and doctor of chemistry and biophysics at UCL, Prof. Alsteens uses two types of microscope: an atomic force microscope and a fluorescence microscope. ‘The atomic force microscope has a very fine-pointed tip to which we can attach a virus. Bringing the tip as close as possible to an animal cell and then moving it away allows us to measure the strength of the interaction between the virus and the cell.’ The fluorescence microscope, which is based on light signals, enables the researcher ‘to see the arrangement of receptors on the cell surface and thus identify how the virus binds to and penetrates the cell in order to infect it. Our research will try to combine in real time the information provided by these two tools in order to better understand the dynamics of viral infection.’
The long-term objective of UCL researchers is exploit the molecular mechanisms they discover for the purpose of developing antiviral molecules that target the key phases of infection.
A technological solution for eliminating and recovering CO2
Prof. Patricia Luis Alconero’s research addresses the technological possibilities of reducing CO2 while exploiting the molecule’s potential as a carbon source for the production of precious compounds.
The continuing increase of CO2 levels in the atmosphere owing to anthropogenic emissions is driving significant changes to the climate, with industry representing one-third of all energy used worldwide and almost 40% of global CO2 emissions. Prof. Alconero says immediate action is required to reduce greenhouse gases, which are currently at 400 ppm. Among the technological possibilities for reducing CO2 emissions, the capture and underground storage of carbon is one of the main strategies, but it aims only to eliminate CO2, thereby ignoring its enormous potential as a carbon source for precious compounds.
Nature developed an efficient, balanced mechanism for concentrating CO2 and binding inorganic carbon with an organic material (such as glucose) by means of enzyme activity. Imitating nature and leveraging millions of years of evolution should be considered a fundamental starting point for developing intelligent and highly efficient processes. Moreover, using amino acid salts to capture CO2 is seen as a potential approach to recovering CO2 in the form of (bi)carbonates.
The CO2LIFE project aims to develop a chemical process that converts carbon dioxide into valuable molecules by using membrane technology. The project employs a dual strategy: i) a CO2 membrane-based absorption-crystallisation process by using amino acid salts, and ii) CO2 conversion into glucose or salts by using enzymes as catalysers supported or retained by membranes. The final product, namely (bi)carbonates or glucose, is of great interest to the (bio)chemical industry, while at the same time new CO2 emissions are avoided and the carbon cycle is closed. This project, Prof. Alconero explains, will provide a technological solution on an industrial scale for the elimination and reuse of CO2.