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11/02/2010

Prestigious ERC Advanced Grant to Professor of Biophysics Rienk van Grondelle

The grant of almost 3 million euros will fund his research into the role chlorophyll-binding proteins play in determining the success of photosynthesis.

What role do chlorophyll-binding proteins play in determining the success of photosynthesis? This is what Rienk van Grondelle, a biophysicist at VU University Amsterdam, intends to discover over the next few years. His work will be funded by a European Research Council (ERC) grant of almost 3 million euros. Supported by the ERC Advanced Grant, which is presented to exceptional individual researchers to pursue cutting-edge research, the knowledge generated by this study will make a valuable contribution to the application and implementation of photosynthesis in food and/or fuel production.

Photosynthesis
Photosynthesis is the process that plants, algae and photosynthetic bacteria use to convert solar radiation into energy-rich chemical compounds. Such compounds store an average 120 x 1012 J of energy per second worldwide, compared to the 15 x 1012 J per second that we humans use. The biological machine driving photosynthesis comprises an intricate constellation of pigment-protein complexes that includes chlorophyll and carotene.

Ultrafast events
The success of photosynthesis depends on two ultrafast events (on the order of 10-12 seconds, or 1 picosecond). The first is the transfer of the absorbed energy between pigments until the energy packet encounters a ‘reaction centre’ – something like an organic solar cell – in which the energy is subsequently converted into the transfer of electrical charge across the photosynthetic membrane. This process, which can be likened to recharging a molecular battery by means of light, is completed within just a few dozen of picoseconds, and manages to capture almost all the energy contained in the absorbed light particles.

Research questions
The key question that Van Grondelle’s research aims to answer concerns the role that proteins play in determining photosynthetic success. Are proteins no more than the passive spatial environment in which pigments are organized or, instead, do proteins play an ‘intelligent’, active role? Broadly speaking, proteins are environments of energetic chaos. Might nature utilize some special facet of that chaos to optimize the process of photosynthesis or attune it to specific circumstances?

Laser research
The study will be conducted using ultrafast and other spectroscopic techniques housed at the LaserLaB Amsterdam and the CEA Saclay, where part of the project will be carried out in collaboration with Dr Bruno Robert.

Rienk van Grondelle
Van Grondelle’s research group is one of the leading research groups working in the area of photosynthesis. Van Grondelle was appointed Academy Professor in 2009 and earlier this year received the 2010 Physics Prize.

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