Universities and research institutions across Europe are major drivers of future technologies. Many of the inventions that are making an impact in society today have had their start in academic and non-profit research laboratories.
Development of vitrimers, a self-healing plastic which is sturdy yet mouldable at the same time.
Vitrimers have wide-ranging potential for medicine, where they can be used to achieve nanobridging between biological tissues to bind together wounds.
Supramolecular chemist and polymer materials expert, inventing vitrimers with wide-ranging applications in science and medicine.
Material sciences have taken a turn towards the realm of science fiction, thanks to the work of Ludwik Leibler. Alongside his team, the Polish-born French physicist has created vitrimers, a new class of plastics which are both sturdy and mouldable at the same time. Consisting of networks of molecules whose bonds are neither rigid nor permanent, vitrimers exist in a state of dynamic equilibrium, where some bonds break as others form elsewhere. Consequently, vitrimers can be manipulated by changing the temperature, creating a self-healing plastic substance with a myriad of applications. One usage area is construction, where conventional epoxy cannot be dissolved or recycled once set. Vitrimers also have wide-ranging potential for medicine, where they can be used to achieve nanobridging between biological tissues to bind together wounds. Leibler received his PhD in theoretical physics from Warsaw University in Poland, and served as the founding director of a joint laboratory between CNRS and chemical company Elf Atochem in France until 2003. Leibler currently consults on projects for the application of vitrimers in science and medicine.
Genetically-modified mosquitoes to stop the spread of dengue fever
Up to 100 million people contract dengue fever annually, with the number of affected countries having risen tenfold since the 1970s.
Zoology researcher, focusing on Sterile Insect Technique to combat mosquito-borne illness
Millions of people suffer from dengue fever every year, and there is no cure for this painful, sometimes deadly, illness. Dengue is the fastest-growing mosquito-borne disease in the world, but Luke Alphey, along with fellow scientist Dean Thomas, may have found a way to stop this. The zoologists spent over a decade working on a method for sterilising the dengue-carrying mosquito. By programming an extra gene into the mosquito’s DNA, its offspring never reaches reproductive maturity. Genetically modified DNA is injected into mosquito eggs, where it is absorbed and spurs the production of a protein which disrupts cellular function after the mosquito is released. Up to 100 million people contract dengue fever annually, with the number of affected countries having risen tenfold since the 1970s. There is no vaccine for dengue, which is spread by mosquitos which are active also during the day. The Alphey technique can reduce mosquito numbers by more than 90%, without using pesticides. The British researchers were the first to use genetically modified insects in this manner, filing the first patent while studying at Oxford University.
Hendrik Marius Jonkers
Self-healing bioconcrete, which seals cracks as buildings deteriorate with age
The long-term benefits are obvious, as maintenance of concrete constructions costs up to €6 billion annually in the EU alone.
Microbiologist, specialising in bacteria behaviour and self-healing materials
The solution to making a longer-lasting concrete is not to use harder materials, but rather something gentler. While working on solving the problem of cracking and deteriorating concrete, Dutch microbiologist Hendrik Jonkers discovered that stability is improved by adding limestone-producing bacteria to the mix. This self-healing bioconcrete is a sustainable solution to improving the lifespan of roads, bridges and buildings, and cheaper than paying for long-term maintenance. Inspired by how the human body heals through mineralisation form osteoblast cells, Jonkers and his team found a solution where a limestone-producing bacteria is tasked with closing up gaps in the concrete. The bacteria, along with a nutrient, are added to the concrete mix, where they will lie dormant for up to two centuries. When cracks appear, admitting moisture, the bacteria awaken, naturally creating limestone which seals the cracks. Jonkers is now working on a sugar-based nutrient for the bacteria, which would make bioconcrete more competitive in price with regular concrete. But long-term, the benefits are already obvious, as maintenance of bridges, tunnels and earth-retaining walls costs up to €6 billion annually in the EU alone.