Martijn Diender is a post-doctoral scientist at the Centre for Living Technologies, a part of the alliance of Eindhoven University of Technology, Wageningen University & Research, Utrecht University and University Medical Centre Utrecht. In this interview, he speaks more about his research and the VENI grant that he received earlier this year.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your career path. 

I became fascinated with applying biology for human benefit during my undergraduate studies in biotechnology. In 2014, I started my PhD in the Laboratory of Microbiology at Wageningen University under the supervision of Alfons Stams and Diana Machado de Souza. During this time I studied the microbial conversion of synthesis gas into commodity chemicals (basis for bioplastics or biofuels). After obtaining my PhD in 2019, I continued with postdoctoral research, where I focused more on the fundamental physiology of the microorganisms that I had worked with during my PhD. It was during this research that I found the inspiration to write the VENI grant. Next to my research on microbial gas conversion I also have been fascinated with developing new ways to study and cultivate microorganisms. This is why I have recently worked with the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea research (NIOZ) where I focused on developing a new microfluidics cultivation technique for live imaging of anaerobic microbes.

Congratulations on the VENI grant. How do you feel about receiving this grant.

I am extremely happy and honoured to have received this grant, especially because the first time I applied for it, it got rejected. It feels great to get my own research idea funded and to actually execute the research idea that I came up with.

How different was the experience when you applied the second time to the same grant?

I made it all the way to the last interview round the first time as well. But as the process is highly competitive, chances of not being granted in the final round were still high. Unfortunately I did not make the cut the first time. During the second attempt, I could use feedback from the first round to improve my proposal. Also, as I had already done the process once, I had the feeling I could relax better in the last interview round and therefore present the research idea in a more convincing way.

Can you tell us more about the project?

In my previous research I worked mainly with microbes that use carbon monoxide (CO) as their food source. Carbon monoxide gas is very toxic and is therefore challenging to work with. This makes that relatively little research is done on the different forms of CO driven metabolism in microbes. During my post-doctoral work I found that certain CO-utilizing microbes can link their metabolism to reduction & precipitation of copper and other metals (something that was not observed before). This made me aware that there was a knowledge gap and that no research had been done on CO metabolism linked to metal reduction. My VENI research therefore aims to study which CO-utilizing microbes can link their metabolism to metal reduction and how this type of metabolism exactly functions on a molecular level.

What are the possible applications of this project?

With the rapid electrification of our society, we are becoming more reliant on the use of certain metals (e.g. copper, nickel, cobalt) in our infrastructure. Increasing demand for these metals causes more activity in mining industries & manufacturers that are generating a large quantity of waste streams containing relatively high concentration of dissolved metals. These metal rich ‘waste streams’ are costly to treat and are therefore often stored. Leaks in such storages can cause the environment to flood and become polluted with toxic metal waste, damaging ecosystems and human health in those areas. I envision that knowledge generated in my research project can in the future be used to develop new bio-based treatment strategies for such metal rich waste streams, simultaneously enabling recovery of the metals. In addition, this project will give new fundamental insights on this form of microbial metabolism and can help to answer questions in the fields of microbial physiology, microbial ecology and evolution.

What added value does the EWUU alliance bring to your research and this project?  

The EWUU alliance is very multidisciplinary which leads you to meet people from very diverse fields. Someone with a sociology, economy or chemistry background will ask completely different questions than a biologist. This caused me to think differently about my research and helps to see my research from different angles. These multidisciplinary interactions also help in asking new research questions and thinking about how my research can make a societal impact. In addition, the EWUU alliance connects you to new collaborators, new groups with different technologies that can in different ways support your research. For example, the microfluidics chip that I am presently developing will benefit from the AI based imaging analysis expertise of UMC Utrecht.

In your day-to-day life, what brings you joy and keeps you motivated? 

As I scientist I have a high drive for obtaining new knowledge. I really enjoy how my work allows me to pick up new ideas, and experiment with it. With my background in biology I keep being fascinated by how life works in all its different forms, and enjoy a lot exploring and learning from it.  

What is your favourite hobby?

Baking bread. I actually picked up this hobby during the COVID pandemic. As a microbiologist, the process of (bread) fermentation is something that interests me. So you will often find me in the kitchen trying some new kind of fermentation experiment.