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Student projects

We welcome students from a variety of backgrounds to participate in our research. Our group currently has the following opportunities for carrying out a bachelors or masters research project.

1. Influence of antibiotics on bacterial chromosomes

Diseases caused by various bacteria constitute one of the biggest public health problems worldwide, causing ~15 million deaths per year [1]. Therefore improving our understanding of the antibiotic function as well as bacterial resistance mechanism is of paramount importance.

In our lab, we developed a novel method to manipulate bacterial cell shapes and by doing so we investigate the finer structure of E.coli chromosome. In the current framework we plan to study the influence of antibiotics on the chromosomes of live bacteria, by using fluorescence microscopy and quantitative data analysis (Fig.1).

We are looking for enthusiastic and hardworking students who are interested in multidisciplinary research. During this project you will learn how to work with bacterial cultures, how various types of antibiotics function and work with fluorescence microscopy to study the effects of drugs on bacterial chromosomes.

For more information pass by the office (F 0.170) or drop an e-mail : a.japaridze@[REMOVE THIS]tudelft.nl


Fig1. Time-lapse images of an E.coli cell lysis. DNA inside the cell is labelled with fellow fluorescent protein.

[1] World Health Organization. 2013. Mortality and global health estimates. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization

2. Transplanting the genome from a live cell into a synthetic cell (BEP/MEP)

We aim to create a simple model system of the genome and its interaction with the cell wall and the various cellular components, such as the cytoplasm and DNA-binding proteins. This is not a computer model, but a “real” experimental synthetic cell containing artificial cytoplasm and a transplanted genome. We hope to re-create inside the synthetic cell the structure and dynamics of the genome observed in real live cells: essentially Feynman’s mantra of “what I cannot create, I do not understand”.

For this BEP/MEP project, we are looking for a creative student to help establish this model system, which would be a world-first! You will need to come up with a way to re-create the crowded conditions of the live-cell cytoplasm inside a synthetic cell. Secondly, the genome of the live-cell needs to be transplanted into the synthetic cell. Finally, we aim to let the synthetic cell expand and contract inside microfabricated structures, to see how the cell size and shape might influence the genome and its dynamics.

These are certainly non-trivial questions. What molecules do we use to make the artificial cytoplasm, what DNA-binding proteins do we add to alter the genome structure? Do liquid-liquid phase transitions have a role to play in genome organization? How can we change the shape and size of a synthetic cell? How does the local action of, for example, a single loop-extruding protein lead to emergent features on the global scale of the genome?

Specifically, we look for a self-motivated student who would like to experience working as an independent scientist. You will be closely involved in the design of experiments and you will learn about microfluidics, cleanroom fabrication, synthetic cells, polymer physics, genome organization and many aspects of cell culture and DNA labeling.

If this sounds like you, please contact me at:
Anthony Birnie
E-mail : a.t.f.birnie@[REMOVE THIS]tudelft.nl
Phone : +31-(0) 15 2789299


A chromosome is compacted by a DNA-binding protein.

3. DNA-origami scaffold for NPC mimics

With the help of DNA-origami nanotechnology, we built a minimalistic version of the NPC, where FG-Nups are anchored to the inner walls of a ~30 nm large DNA-origami pore, with predefined stoichiometry and positioning. We employ this platform to study the arrangement of FG-Nups within the pore volume using AFM and TEM imaging techniques.

We are looking for an enthusiastic Master/Bachelor student with an interest in synthetic bottom-up biology. Depending on the duration of your project, you will get trained on building NPC mimics using DNA-origami and FG-Nups, imaging them with TEM and AFM, and processing the data (Matlab/Image J/Gwyddion). 

If interested, please contact Alessio at A.fragasso@[REMOVE THIS]tudelft.nl or drop by office (F0.170).


4. Mimicking selectivity of the Nuclear Pore Complex with Designer FG-Nups

In this project, we attempt at reconstituting NPC selective transport in biomimetic nanopores using bottom-up designed artificial FG-Nups. By testing the impact of systematic variations of artificial FG-Nups on selectivity, we aim at unraveling what are the minimal features for having an efficient and selective transport. We believe this novel approach will finally shed light on some fundamental physical principles that govern the NPC behavior. 

We are looking for an enthusiastic Master/Bachelor student with a multidisciplinary background or interest. Depending on the duration of your project, you will get trained on engineering nanopores with FG-Nups, testing selective behavior of biomimetic NPCs and processing data (Matlab). Besides, you will get hands-on experience in using a TEM machine and detecting protein binding with a QCM-D.

If you feel thrilled, please contact Alessio at A.fragasso@[REMOVE THIS]tudelft.nl or drop by office (F0.170).


5. BEP/MEP project: mRNA NEXT

Compartimentalization of DNA in the nucleus is one of the central features that distinguishes eukaryotic cells from simpler organisms. Like a door connecting two rooms, a huge multiprotein complex, the nuclear pore complex (NPC), enables communication and controlled passage of molecules between the nucleus and the cytoplasm. Fundamental cellular functions, like protein production, require the messenger molecule RNA to exit the nucleus through the NPC door; yet, how this transport actually occurs is still unclear.
The final goal of the mRNA NEXT project is to recreate a minimal nuclear export system that is able to drive transport of RNA in a functional mimicking of NPC. Recreating the functionality of the NPC bottom-up will allow us to unravel the nature of the minimal transport complex and describe its mechanism in details.

We use a current-base reading that enables us to distinguish single transport events of proteins and RNA through the biomimetic NPC. Since the proteins involved perform other tasks in the cell, our unique bottom-up approach is vital to address these questions. By joining this project, you will contribute to the first-ever successful reconstruction of mRNA export in a completely in vitro system!

You will be directly involved in experimental design, trained on protein production, molecular biology techniques, single molecule nanopore technology and QCM-D, in a unique combination of interdisciplinary methods at the merge of cell biology, biochemistry and nanotechnology.

We are looking for independent and enthusiast Master/Bachelor students with Physics, Biology, or interdisciplinary background. International students are especially encouraged to apply.

For more info, contact Paola De Magistris (P.Demagistris@[REMOVE THIS]tudelft.nl) or visit our labs in Applied Sciences (office 58.F0.150).


6. BEP/MEP: Function and structure relationship of DNA-interacting proteins

In our lab, we have expertise in DNA and protein interactions, and in particular we study how proteins can organize the DNA into different conformations. Single-molecule techniques enable us to gain an understanding of the function and structural relationship of these proteins. Among the most important proteins which interact with DNA is the SMC (Structural Maintenance Complex) protein family. These proteins, including condensin, cohesin, or SMC5/6, are used for spatial organization of chromosomes and chromosome segregation. Using various single-molecule techniques, our group has shown the remarkable molecular mechanism of condensin. Our aim is to study how the structural changes of the SMC proteins are related to its function using complementary atomic force microscopy (AFM) and optical imaging methods. The students will learn valuable experimental skills such as dry AFM, liquid AFM, and optical microscopy.

For more information, please contact Je-Kyung Ryu (J.Ryu@[TUD]).


Figure 1: AFM image of condensin binding to DNA

7. BEP/MEP: single-molecule investigtation of RNA-polymerase interaction with supercoiled DNA

Cells store their genetic information in DNA. Typical length of the genomic DNA lies in a range of several millimeters to meters which needs to be well-organized for reading genes of demand. Consequently, it is not an easy task to put this long polymer inside the micron sized cell in a very organized fashion. Inter-winding and twisting of the DNA play a key role in packing the DNA into the cell, yet the perpetual access by the proteins, which reads the genetic information from the DNA and convert it into the vital chemical processes, makes the structural status of DNA dynamic and challenging. One such vital process is RNA-transcription where the DNA is read by a protein called RNA-polymerase (RNAP).

It is known that the activity of RNA-polymerase greatly depends on the supercoiled state of the DNA. For instance, while RNA is transcribed by RNAP, plectonemes are generated both downstream and upstream of RNAP/RNA/DNA complex (see figure). This in turn slows down RNA transcription by RNAP. However, most in vitro experiments were performed on linear DNA which does not represent the conditions that RNAP encounters in vivo. Thus, we are interested in studying the interaction of RNAP with supercoiled DNA using our newly developed high-throughput single-molecule technique (see Ganji and Kim et al, Nano Let. 2016). The outcome of this project will improve our understanding of mechanism of RNA transcription by providing detailed mechanism of how RNAP interacts with transiently generated plectonemes. A student with background in physics and/or biology will explore this interdisciplinary project and study how the supercoiled state of the DNA modulates the activity of RNA-polymerase.

For more information, please contact Eugene Kim (e.kim@[REMOVE THIS]tudelft.nl).


8. Bacterial nucleoid project: study of nucleoid dynamics inside live E.coli

It is becoming clear that the spatial organisation of DNA is crucially important for its biological function. In living cells, DNA is highly confined in space with the help of condensing agents, high levels of supercoiling and numerous DNA binding proteins. Despite extensive research, the mechanical and geometric properties of the chromosomes, as well as their impact on DNA segregation are open to debate.

Here, through cell shape manipulation, quantitative imaging and numerical simulations, we unravel the intrinsic structure of E.coli chromosome. We use drugs and molecular genetics tricks to disrupt the cytoskeleton of bacteria, leading to cell sizes far larger than the rod-like wiltype cells. By releasing the lateral constraint on the chromosome in the bacterial cell we reveal an intrinsic donut topology of the chromosome composed of two dense bundles flanking the origin of replication, bridged by a thin Ter filament. The chromosome is highly dynamic and heterogeneous in density, showing morphological rearrangements as well as DNA-density redistribution at sub-minute timescales. We show that cellular crowding and entropic effect can lead to the spatial separation of chromosomes, which is reinforced by their weak associations with internal cell membrane.

For more information, feel free to pass by the office (F0.170) or drop an e-mail: a.japaridze@[REMOVE THIS]tudelft.nl


9. Single-molecule study of condensin-induced loop extrusion dynamics

It has been hypothesized that Structural Maintenance of Chromosomes (SMC) protein complexes such as condensin and cohesin spatially organize chromosomes by extruding DNA into large loops. We have recently provided experimental evidence for loop extrusion by directly visualizing the formation and progressive extension of DNA loops by yeast condensin in real-time (See Ganji et. al. Science 2018). We aim to further extend this study to investigate loop extrusion mechanism in supercoiled DNA (i.e. over- or under-wound DNA strands) as well as in the presence of RNA polymerase. This project is highly interdisciplinary and the student will be able to gain in-depth knowledge on single-molecule biophysics and experimental skills on HiLO/TIRF/wide-field microscopy and flow cell preparation.

For more information, please contact Eugene Kim (e.kim@[REMOVE THIS]tudelft.nl).


10. A bio-nano approach to point-of-care testing of parasitic DNA in resource limited settings

Background: Diagnostics are important for adequate health care. Current diagnostics are often expensive; require skilled personal, a stable source of electricity and a well-equipped lab to operate- requirements that are often not met in resource limited settings. There is a great need for cheap and simple point-of-care tests that do not require skilled users to probe for disease. Many treatable diseases remain untreated due to this lack of cheap and simple point-of-care tests.

Aim: The aim of this research project is to develop an innovative point-of-care diagnostic test that can be used for molecular diagnosis in resource-limited settings. We aim to probe for the presence of pathogenic DNA in body fluids using a cheap and simple, yet robust molecular test. The proposed method does not require electricity or skilled laboratory personal to operate. Furthermore, the test will function at a broad temperature range, yet remain highly sensitive and specific. Advantages over traditional methods of pathogen culturing and microscopy include the following: molecular diagnostics is rapid and enables results in real-time as opposed to culturing that takes weeks; it can be miniaturized in a lab-on-chip format and it is very specific- able to detect genetic factors such as drug resistance.

Detailed project description: The key scientific innovation is to use the CRISPR/Cas9 genome-engineering system as a DNA detection tool. The Cas9 protein and its sensing RNA have the unique capability to find any specific target DNA sequence in a given sample. We will exploit this capability and equip the Cas9 protein with guide RNA that enables detection of a DNA target sequence specific to a pathogen of interest. Furthermore, the cas9-guide RNA complex will be coupled to an enzymatic RNA molecule that will provide an amplified colorimetric readout in the presence of the specific pathogenic DNA sequence. A simple colour change, detectable to the naked eye, will be produced when the DNA sequence is present.

Short term research goals: To develop a molecular detection method directed at double stranded DNA by elucidating the molecular biology of the Cas9-guide RNA complex that will detect target DNA (Lambda DNA will be used as a model for proof of principal studies).

Long term research goals: To develop a microfluidic device. I will explore the use of paper fluidics and lateral flow assays to develop the microfluidic device. To develop a prototype of the molecular test and collaborate with the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam on the evaluation and implementation of the test. Field-testing, in collaboration with various universities and hospitals, in disease endemic countries will be explored in the last phase of this research project.

Michel Bengtson (MSc)
Email: M.L.Bengtson@[REMOVE THIS]tudelft.nl
Contact Number: 015 2788780


11. Protein sequencing using nanopore technology

Proteins are the molecular machines in the human body. Therefore, understanding protein function is key to understand, detect, and cure diverse diseases. This function is tightly linked to the proteins’s 3D structure and ultimately its specific amino acid sequence.
Electric detection using single molecule nanopore technology has emerged as one of the most promising techniques to sequence proteins in a cheap and fast way: upon translocation through the pore, the protein of interest partially blocks the pore, thus changing the pore’s electric conductance. However, the higher complexity of proteins as compared to DNA (20 amino acids vs. 4 nucleotides) has remained a challenge.

In project 1, we address this complexity by attaching artificial marker molecules to specific amino acids, enabling their reliable recognition. The design and characterization of such chemical tags covers interdisciplinary concepts, such as the physics of nanopore technology, the chemistry of nanopore-tag interactions, and protein biochemisty.
Project 2, aims at controlling the notoriously fast translocation time of molecules through the pore that limits the observation time. Specifically, we exploit a motor protein to control translocation in an ATP-dependent manner. In this innovative approach, we combine the best of two worlds, namely physical single-molecule detection with the function of protein nano-machines. Experience in protein chemistry techniques is favourable for project 2.

Both projects are suitable for BEP and MEP. We look for highly motivated and independent students who seek to pursue interdisciplinary research at the nanoscale.

Sonja Schmid
s.schmid@[REMOVE THIS]tudelft.nl
015-278 7915


12. An artificial cell cortex made of DNA

In Eukaryotic cells, the actin cortex underlying the plasma membrane fulfills several important functions. These include providing mechanical resistance, regulating diffusion of membrane components, and inducing constriction during cytokinesis. In particular, active remodeling and force generation by the cortex is achieved by the concerted action of both the motor activity of Myosin-II and a number of different proteins acting as cross-linkers.

In a bottom-up approach, actin cortex has been reconstituted inside giant vesicles by several groups. One limitation of this approach is the intrinsic complexity of the actin system, in which the interplay between polymerization, depolymerization, different kinds of cross-linkers and myosin motor activity is relatively poorly understood.

We have developed a minimalistic system based on DNA tiles reconstituted inside giant vesicles, which recapitulates the properties of an actin cortex, including regulation of diffusion and vesicle constriction. Such design allows a better control over the properties of the system, and can be further developed to encode new functions, such as spatial localization of constriction.

We are looking for creative and enthusiast Master/Bachelor students of any background. By joining this project, you will be able to  develop and test your own ideas; you will learn how to produce and manipulate giant vesicles, how to work with DNA assemblies and how to interface the two systems. Such expertise are essential components of the toolbox in bottom-up synthetic biology.

Please contact Nicola De Franceschi

n.defranceschi@[REMOVE THIS]tudelft.nl


Giant vesicle deformed by the action of DNA cortex

13. Engineering a synthetic cell division machinery

DNA/RNA origami technology allows rational, ‘bottom-up’ construction of complex nanostructures. More recently, dynamic origami devices such as tweezers, walkers and rotors have also been developed. A nanorobot able to self-activate and starve tumors in vivo [1] is just the latest example of the tremendous possibilities offered by this smart technology.

Yet, dynamic origami still rely on relatively simple molecular mechanisms, far from matching the complexity of biological systems. Moreover, modulating the interplay between origami and biological membranes still represents a significant challenge.

In this project, we use DNA/RNA origami to engineer a synthetic cell division machinery able to assemble on the surface of giant liposomes and induce membrane constriction. This is part of BaSyC, a nation-wide consortium aimed at building a fully autonomous synthetic cell.

We are looking for enthusiastic students who are interested in multidisciplinary research. During this project you will learn how to design and assemble DNA/RNA origami and how to work with biological membranes, in particular Giant Unilamellar Vesicles (GUVs). You will image these components using a combination of fluorescence microscopy, Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM) and Electron Microscopy (EM).

For more information send an e-mail to: n.defranceschi@[REMOVE THIS]tudelft.nl

[1] Li et al. A DNA nanorobot functions as a cancer therapeutic in response to a molecular trigger in vivo. Nat Biotechnol. 2018


In vitro transcription inside Giant Unilamellar Vesicles