Leiden University: ERC Advanced Grants for four Leiden researchers

From a new generation of antibiotics and more-effective vaccines to a map of dark matter and new light on Hindu traditions. Four researchers from Leiden University have received a prestigious €2.5m ERC Advanced Grant to develop their research.

New light on the religious development of South and Southeast Asia
Professor of Sanskrit and Ancient Cultures of South Asia Peter Bisschop researches Puranas: ancient texts, commonly written in Sanskrit, that are up to fifteen hundred years old. ‘We in the Netherlands are generally well informed about the European classics, but we know nothing about Indian classical cultural history,’ Bisschop explains. He will focus on anonymous texts about the mythical cycles of important Hindu gods. ‘Even though there are also highly original Puranas, the genre is well known for the recycling of any information that ends up in these texts.’ With this project Bisschop and his research group want to map the compilation, transmission and translation of these texts in order to shed new light on the cultural and religious development of South and Southeast Asia.

A map of dark matter
Dark matter comprises about 85 per cent of the matter in the universe. Professor of Observational Cosmology Hendrik Hoekstra wants to map out where this dark matter is to be found. He will do so by making the data from the Euclid space telescope, which has yet to be launched, more precise. ‘A major hindrance in our search for dark matter is ordinary matter,’ says Hoekstra. ‘By looking closely at the information that receive, we can already deduce a lot about the mass of galaxies. Then we can include it in our calculations and make the most accurate map of dark matter as possible.’

Waking sleeping antibiotics
As nature’s drug manufacturers Streptomyces bacteria produce an excess of natural products. Professor of Molecular Biotechnology Gilles van Wezel is researching these bacteria that produce antibiotics. These are used for clinical, biotechnological and agricultural applications. Streptomyces still have an enormous reservoir of unknown natural products. Van Wezels COMMUNITY project will focus on unravelling the systems that control the production of antibiotics in Streptomyces. This knowledge can be applied to finding new bioactive molecules. Van Wezel also wants to identify microbes that can act as probiotics for humans, animals and plants to provide biological protection against infections and pests.

Better protection after vaccinations
People in Africa and Southeast Asia often respond less well to certain vaccines than, for example, Europeans. Professor of Parasitology Maria Yazdanbakhsh of the LUMC has been awarded an ERC Advanced Grant for her research into the effect of vaccines. Her goal is to find a solution for the low vaccine response. ‘Studies of a new malaria vaccine in Europe and the United States show a protection of almost 100% among participants. If we repeat this study in Africa, we see that only 30% of the participants are protected. While the vaccine is needed most on that continent,’ says Yazdanbakhsh. This phenomenon is called hypo-responsiveness and occurs with several vaccines, such as those against Ebola and yellow fever. Yazdanbakhsh wants to unravel the cause of hypo-responsiveness with a team of researchers.

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