Wetenschap - 29 november 2012

Millions for quest for new bacteria

Professor of Microbial Physiology Fons Stams received an ERC Advanced Grant worth 2.5 million euros last week.

He spoke to us on Skype from his current location in Braga, Portugal, where he is visiting scientist at Minho University.
You have received one of the biggest science grants going. How does that feel?
'I feel honoured, naturally. And it is a recognition of my vision regarding the need to breed and document new micro-organisms. This has been given less importance in recent years because you can also study bacteria through their DNA.'
So you will be using the money to track down bacteria?
┬┤Exactly. More than 95 percent of naturally occurring micro-organisms have never been isolated. So a lot can be achieved there, because you often find bacteria with characteristics that have never been documented before. In DNA research many of those characteristics remain undetectable.'
And can this also lead to useful applications?
'Certainly. There is enormous potential for bio- and environmental technology in bacteria. For converting organic waste into useful products, for example. But the main drive for me as a scientist is curiosity to discover what unknown anaerobic bacteria do.'
Does this grant make it easier to go on being curious?
'Yes, a large sum like this reduces the necessity of doing continuous acquisition to get new projects. The ERC grant creates space in that sense. It will enable me to spend more time in the lab, culturing new anaerobic bacteria myself, and on supervising my colleagues' research. It is a nice prospect to have the chance to pass on my fascination with and knowledge about anaerobic microbiology to you researchers.'