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Coffee with Bert Poolman

Bert Poolman is a biochemistry professor at the University of Groningen and has been a member of the NCOH Executive Board since the summer of 2022. In the lab, he builds synthetic cells, and in his free time, he builds his holiday home in Italy. Poolman discusses his research, his role within NCOH and how Groningen researchers contribute.

What is the topic of your research?

‘Our group builds synthetic cells. We try to cross the boundary between chemistry and biology at a molecular level. To this end, we build molecular networks whose functions mimic those of living cells. Even the simplest living cell is still largely a black box due to the many unknown molecular reactions and interactions. We try to build complex systems that mimic the processes that occur in living cells through lab experiments and computational modeling. The systems we construct are less complex than the living cells, to help us better understand how interactions between molecules take place.’

And how are these systems useful?

‘Our goal is not just to understand how a cell works, but also to be able to apply systems. A fully autonomous system, that maintains itself and grows, can be applied towards various goals. For example, you can build membrane vesicles for the smart administration of medication: only where and when they are needed.’

What sparks your interest in this domain?

‘The complexity of biology fascinates me. We build systems based on the properties of known molecules. However, if you bring these molecules together, unexpected properties may result. This reveals the complexity of the cell. That is something I find fascinating because this is also how it happens in living cells. In vivo we often do not notice these emergent properties, because of all the other processes that are going on at the same time.’

What is your role within NCOH?

‘I was the scientific director of the Groningen Biomolecular Sciences and Biotechnology Institute and served temporarily on the faculty board last year. I moved to the NCOH Executive Board representing the University of Groningen, from that position. My background serves me well; I know who within the faculties of Science and Engineering and Medical Sciences are involved in research domains relevant to NCOH, which could help us better prepare for the next pandemic.’

How can Groningen contribute to or fortify NCOH?

‘Our strength lies in making molecules and unravelling the mechanisms of their action, for example, against tuberculosis or for antibiotics. We also have groups specialising in finding the pathogenicity of viruses and bacteria, and groups specialising in immunology. This expertise is relevant to many of the NCOH themes.’

What do you consider the greatest One Health challenge?

‘We have just had a viral pandemic, but I have had concerns for years about a bacterial pandemic. Resistance is a significant issue, and we currently have very few options to prevent an outbreak of bacterial pathogens. One of the greatest challenges is to interest sufficient people, commercial parties included, in developing antibiotics. Unfortunately, the pharmaceutical industry is not all that interested, as most people only use antibiotics occasionally and limited business is generated. Still, I feel more should be done in this area.

Such as?

‘The budget for fundamental research in the Netherlands and its application is currently very limited. That must change. In Groningen, we develop a wide range of molecules and detection systems, but these must still go through the clinical stage. I believe start-ups and public-private collaboration would be excellent ways to do this.’

‘You could argue that developing technological expertise is expensive, but the covid pandemic demonstrated that waiting to develop such expertise is also costly. A bacterial pandemic is certain to occur at some point. The only question is when. And we don’t know what bacterium will cause the pandemic and how severe such a pandemic will be. That makes predicting what antibiotics to develop challenging. Hence, we must be prepared.’

What dreams do you have for One Health?

‘Covid has made us more aware, and I hope it will stay that way. For covid, but also for other viruses and bacteria.’

How do you re-energise in your free time?

‘In the lab, my group and I construct at a molecular level, but I also construct in my spare time. We have a holiday home in Italy, where I do much of the remodelling myself. I really enjoy manual work, for example making new doors and window frames or installing new electrics. In the lab, we work on a tiny scale; at home, it’s all large scale. And Italy has a fabulous climate, culture and cuisine.’

‘When I’m not doing construction work, I enjoy cycling with my four children and their partners. Perfect in both Italy and the Netherlands.’