Wilhelm Huck wins prestigious Vici award

Wilhelm Huck

The Dutch Society for Scientific Research (NWO), has awarded Prof. Wilhelm Huck (Physical-Organic Chemistry, IMM), €1.5M in a project aimed at using picoliter droplets to mimic the chemical environment within cells.

A cell is the common unit structure shared by all living organisms. But even 'simple' prokaryotic cells are extremely complex chemical reactors dominated by crowding, interfaces, and complex chemical reaction networks. At present, we do not fully understand the basic underlying physical organic chemistry of the cell and we do not have a model system suitable for systematic studies. It is the broad aim of this research to construct a robust experimental platform to elucidate the precise influence that the particular physiochemical conditions commonly found in living systems have on model complex biochemical reactions. Monodisperse ~10µm diameter water-in-oil microdroplets surrounded by a monolayer of (phospholipid) surfactant have approximately the same volume as a cell, but reactions can be studied systematically under idealized conditions. Droplets can be formed, fused, split, sorted and interrogated using fluorescence spectroscopy at kHz rates in microfluidic devices.

The work is divided into two main research projects and supported by technological developments in droplet manipulation and characterization

One project will study the influence of concentration, confinement and the presence of interfaces, on the in vitro transcription and translation (IVTT) of fluorescent proteins arising from a single copy of plasmid DNA in the droplets. In the second stage of this project, the influence of these conditions on the level of noise present in the IVTT system will be studied using two fluorescent proteins expressed on the same plasmid.

In the second project, we will study communication between trapped droplets, and emerging complexity in reaction diffusion networks that develop between droplet compartments. We will demonstrate the potential of this set-up by extracting binding constants of enzyme inhibitors. Droplet networks will then be used to explore the complex interactions and pattern formation in competing reactions.

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