Methusalem funding expands researchers' horizons

(28-03-2021) Supporting ground-breaking and impactful research that will make a profound difference to society. That is the guiding principle of the Methusalem programme.

Seven Ghent University research groups recently received funding so that they can develop projects throughout the next 7 years. Below, they explain exactly what they are planning to do.

The Methusalem programme offers the most prestigious and extensive funding from the Special Research Fund. A total of 27.5 million euros have been allocated for a period of 7 years. With this funding, the laureates and their research groups can further strengthen their international benchmark position and ensure that Ghent University improves its already significant reputation in their respective fields.

Making plants more stress-resistant thanks to genome doubling

The scientists in Professor Yves Van de Peer's laboratory (Department of Plant Biotechnology and Bioinformatics) will use the Methusalem funding to continue to investigate polyploid organisms. More specifically, the scientists are going to make new species hybrids which are more resistant to extreme conditions, such as drought, global warming and the changing climate.

Yves Van de Peer: “In nature, thousands of animal and plant species are polyploid, which means that their cells contain more than one copy of their genomes - the entirety of their genetic material. For example, wheat, strawberries and cotton are polyploid, but so are many types of flowers and certain types of frogs. Generally speaking, we see that species with this type of genome doubling produce larger fruits, leaves and flowers. Previous studies have also shown that polyploid species have increased resistance to stress factors -drought, for example - but in the long term this trait appears to die out. For scientists, this is a fascinating paradox: On the one hand, the fact that genome doubling is so common - and seemingly without any negative effects, on the contrary - but, on the other hand, the fact that the long-term survival of this characteristic is extremely rare. And when this trait does continue to be passed on, it has been shown to coincide with a significant evolutionary occurrence, such as a mass extinction event or extreme cases of climatological change, for example.”

The researchers want to verify precisely what happens when organisms undergo this type of ‘beneficial’ genome doubling. Yves Van de Peer: “How does this extra copy of the genome ensure that an organism is or becomes more stress-resistant? That is what we want to investigate, by artificially making polyploid algae and plants. Furthermore, we want to investigate how the evolution of polyploids will continue during times when nature comes under the greatest pressure, and we also ultimately want to ‘make’ new polyploid plant species by crossbreeding existing plants in the hope that these hybrids will have improved resistance to drought, high-saline soils, climate change etc.“

People and animals: not that big a difference …

The research team under Professor Frederick Verbruggen (Department of Experimental Psychology) will use the Methusalem funding to study how individuals can control their actions, thereby exhibiting flexible and targeted behaviour.

Frederick Verbruggen: “In daily life, it is important to be able to suppress or adapt impulsive, inappropriate or irresponsible actions. But apparently, this is not that easy for everyone. There are significant individual differences, and problems with behavioural control have now been linked to numerous mental disorders. But how do these differences and problems arise? As is so often the case, genetic and environmental factors both play a role. But how exactly does this work? And why is there a greater chance of developing behavioural problems in one environment than in another? In this project, we are working within a multidisciplinary framework whereby we interconnect cognitive, neurobiological and ecological research to find answers to these many questions. We will mainly focus on the social and natural environment during the first phases of life. In previous studies, it was often difficult to differentiate cause and effect, but now, in this new project, we can investigate this systematically and with greater precision.”

What makes this research unique is that here the link is made between animal and human behaviour. Frederick Verbruggen: “In this project we are focussing entirely on the behaviour of birds in (semi-)natural environments. Animal behaviour can, in fact, function as a mirror for human behaviour, and in a number of aspects, the similarities between people and animals are greater than the differences. So, for example, we study wild seagulls, because they exhibit very interesting individual differences. For this purpose, we have set up a collaboration – based in psychology, biology and veterinary medicine – with the Vogelopvangcentrum (Bird Shelter) in Ostend and the Research Institute Nature and Forest. This way our theoretical research can also have an impact on the rehabilitation and reintroduction of species. A ‘win-win’ in other words …”

Sepsis: Research that saves lives

The research group led by Professor Claude Libert (Department of Biomedical Molecular Biology) will use the Methusalem funding to continue its research into sepsis. This disease, also known as ‘blood poisoning’, is responsible for no less than 1 in 5 deaths per year on our planet.

Claude Libert: “This enormous number - representing 11 million deaths per year, 4 million of which are children - is a direct consequence of the fact that we still do not know the exact details of the course of this disease and where we can intervene to stop it. That is where we want to focus our work in this project. In our work, we will target new findings related to several vital metabolic pathways in the liver which, in sepsis, cease functioning rather suddenly. This research will be performed on mice. We also want to make the connection with the disease in humans by carrying out studies related to sepsis in pigs - in fact, sepsis is also an enormous problem in pig and cattle farming. We also want to set up information campaigns to persuade the business world, which is really averse to investing in sepsis, to invest and to involve them in this research.”

Into the breach for the Congolese rainforest

The research performed by Professor Pascal Boeckx's team (Department of Green Chemistry and Technology) is taking place in the Congo Basin, which is the second largest rainforest on earth and which extends into various countries in Central Africa. The Congo Basin is much less studied than its big brother, the Amazon rainforest. Yet, it is an extremely important ecosystem for the global diversity, the water and carbon cycle and climate issues.

Pascal Boeckx: “But the continued existence of the rainforest is under threat. No less than 65% of the fires on our planet occur in Africa - unfortunately, these numerous small-scale fires do not make it into the “news of the day”. They are the result of a population who is directly dependent for their food and energy supplies on this tropical forest - charcoal is the preeminent energy source in Africa. As a result, some of this rainforest is lost each day. Our research targets this socio-economic mismatch: How can we preserve the ecosystem functions of the rainforest while at the same time, together with the population, develop sustainable agricultural techniques so that they can maintain their livelihoods? And certainly in light of the population explosion that is under way - by 2100, four of 10 inhabitants of planet Earth will live on the African continent – these problems are more urgent than ever.”

“The Methusalem funding will also continue to finance the European-Belgian flux tower project, CongoFlux. We use this climate tower to measure, among other things, the CO2 exchange between the atmosphere and the rainforest, which provides us with data about the role of this rainforest within the global climate system. And finally, with the funding, we will also search for solutions for restoring the degraded sections of the rainforest - the burnt-out areas, in other words - to their original diversity and functionality.”

Mathematics: the language of the universe

Of an entirely different order is the academic world of Professor Michael Ruzhansky (Department of Mathematics: Analysis, Logic and Discrete Mathematics). With his existing group of scientists based on his FWO Odysseus 1 project, he carries out fundamental research in the field of mathematical analysis and partial differential equations. With the Methusalem grant, the group will continue to focus on mathematical research that forms the basis of various applications. The project is devoted to several related directions in mathematical analysis (harmonic, noncommutative, spectral, time-frequency, frame, microlocal analysis) as well as the theory of partial differential equations (elliptic, hyperbolic, evolution, fractional, and inverse problems). 

Michael Ruzhansky: "Mathematics is at the centre of many sciences. It is the language par excellence to approach other sciences. From mobile phones to television screens, from computers to medical imaging: at the heart of all these applications is mathematical analysis. Or as the Italian astronomer, physicist and engineer Galileo Galilei said in the 16th century: Nature is written in mathematical language.

Toward the next generation of wireless networks

The research group led by Professor Piet Demeester (Information Technology Department) will use the Methusalem funding to lay the foundations for new generations of wireless networks.

Piet Demeester: “Indeed, 6G and the networks that will follow it are our research domain. Throughout the past 25 years, the world of wireless communication has changed immensely. Today, networks are the solution for connecting people and things with the Internet. Our research group has shifted into high gear and is focussing on 6G and beyond, where the ‘bit rate’ rises exponentially to as high as 1TBit/second (TBit or ‘terabit’, where a bit is the unit for the speed of information transfer, Ed.). The applications that are based on our research can be found throughout our daily lives, from GSMs, to virtual reality and on to artificial intelligence.”

New treatment for asthma patients

No less than 300 million people world-wide suffer from one form or another of asthma. Asthma is a chronic disorder affecting the airways, and it can manifest itself in a number of ways. It is usually treated using inhalers which contain anti-inflammatory agents. In nearly 10% of asthma patients, current treatment methods do not provide sufficient relief, and there are signs of continuous deterioration in lung function. The team of scientists led by Professor Bart Lambrecht (Department of Internal Medicine and Paediatrics) wants to use the Methusalem funding to find better treatments for this group of patients.

Bart Lambrecht: “A significant portion of the patients who have severe asthma have what is known as ‘persistent airway obstruction’, which is not so much caused by inflammation but by the accumulation of very sticky phlegm in the form of mucous plugs that contain significant amounts of protein crystals and dead cells. First of all, we think that these viscous mucus plugs offer a simple explanation for the persistent obstruction of the airway, and, secondly, we believe they are so irritating to the airway and the immune system that the disorder becomes chronic, in particular, in the vicinity of these plugs. In coming years, we will focus our work specifically on this aspect of the disease and on how we can improve the prognosis for these patients. We hope to be able to develop unique therapies to neutralise the plugs and their harmful effects. This will make a world of difference for the patients, making their disorder - finally - treatable.  For us scientists, this is a challenge, because we can combine clinical work with fundamental research in immunology and molecular biology for the benefit of the patient.”