Researcher Daan Swarts is in the running for the title of ‘New Scientist Research Talent 2019’. Swarts investigates new methods to cut DNA at specific locations. This opens new possibilities for focused DNA modifications.
Daan Swarts during the CRISPR 2018 conference in Vilnius, Lithuania (private photo archives Daan Swarts)
It is a prize for the greatest scientific talent in the Netherlands and Flanders. People can cast their votes for the Wageningen candidate on the New Scientist website (link at the bottom of this article). ‘I am honoured by the nomination’, says Swarts, Biochemistry researcher at the Department of Agrotechnology and Food Sciences. Swarts investigates new bacterial immune systems, which are programmed to cut DNA at a specific location.
The discovery of CRISPR-Cas9 was a major breakthrough. With this protein, which stems from the immune system of certain bacteria, researchers can specifically cut and paste pieces of DNA. This technique offers a wide range of possibilities, such as curing hereditary diseases or improving food production through genetically modified plants.
Cut and paste
However, a disadvantage of CRISPR-Cas9 is that the protein can only cut at a limited number of locations. During his PhD research, Swarts discovered the function of a new kind of bacterial proteins, the Argonaute proteins. In theory, these would allow researchers to cut and paste DNA at any location. ‘We are currently investigating which of these proteins work in cells’, Swarts says. Together with his former supervisor John van der Oost, Swarts holds two patents related to this discovery.
After obtaining his PhD, Swarts investigated the 3D structure of CRISPR-Cas12a, a protein with a similar function and applicability to those of CRISPR-Cas9. Using this 3D structure, he unravelled how this protein recognises and cuts DNA. Swarts: ‘Before we apply this type of bacterial immune system to modify DNA, we must first properly understand them. One would want such a protein to cut very precisely at a specific location. Personally, I especially enjoy making these fundamental discoveries; I leave the applications to others.’
Cast your vote
Swarts is one of 25 nominees. You can cast your vote through this website (in Dutch). The results will be combined with the judgment of a professional jury, and the five best young scientists will be on stage on 31 May at Tivoli Vredenburg in Utrecht, where the winner will be announced.