“My ambition in my research is to understand how biological and artificial materials act on the molecular level. I am trying to develop new methods to ‘film’ atoms and molecules as they function,” says Sebastian Westenhoff, Doctor of Biophysics at the Department of Chemistry, University of Gothenburg.
When the deadline for applications for a research grant under the Future Research Leaders programme expired in the autumn, the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research had received 159 applications, 39 of them in the field of biotechnology and technology in the life sciences.
The selection process involved several stages and each application was first examined by a national expert committee followed by a review by international experts. After interviewing selected candidates, 18 young researchers remained who, in the opinion of the foundation, have the potential and the ambition required to become future research leaders.
Sebastian Westenhoff will use the research grant on pioneering experiments using a new technique to visualise the motion of atoms and molecules. The method combines modern laser technology with high-intensity X-rays, and requires a large-scale synchrotron facility (MAX IV), which is under construction in Lund. The grant will make it possible to build up and lead a young, innovative and cross-disciplinary research group that will deepen our understanding of molecular structural dynamics. The work is expected to aid the development of new drugs and nanotechnology development.
“Cells are the smallest units of living organisms. A human consists of billions of cells, each one of which is surrounded by a cell membrane that protects it from the surroundings. The fusion of cell membranes is an important biological reaction that controls our ability to feel, experience and think. Several common diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes, are related to errors in the function of the cell membrane.”
It is not possible at the moment to study the structural changes that take place when cell membranes fuse. The new technique that Sebastian Westenhoff will be using has the potential to change this.
“Understanding cell fusion would be an enormous step forward for science. My long-term vision is to make possible the design and construction of functional materials at the molecular level, which may lead to new methods of distributing drugs throughout the body.”
The technique can also be used to investigate organic semiconductors – new materials that combine the flexibility of plastics with the electronic properties of semiconductors. These are materials that can be used in flat-screen TVs, mobile phones and ‘electronic paper’. Organic semi-conductors also have an enormous potential for use in organic solar cells, which promise clean, renewable and cheap energy. The research project may open new ways for the manufacture of such nanotechnology products.