The Institute of Chemistry Pregl award for exceptional doctoral work and Janko Jamnik scolarship award ceremony

[Translate to English:] Preglova nagrajenca dr. Tine Curk in dr. Vojč Kocman ter direktor Kemijskega inštituta prof. Gregor Anderluh (z leve)

Ljubljana, 29 November 2017 - On 29 November 2017, the Institute of Chemistry awarded three Pregl awards for exceptional doctoral work and the Janko Jamnik scolarship at the traditional reception for business partners. This year's event was in honour of the researchers and professors Janez Plavec and Gregor Mali, who received the prestigious state awards for their work last week - the Zois Award and the Zois Certificate of Recognition.

The honorary guest of the ceremony was the Ambassador of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, her Excellency Ms. Sophie Honey. In her address, she spoke about co-operation in the field of science between Slovenia and Great Britain after Brexit. Even after Brexit, the UK wants to look for ways and arrangements to be able to continue and strengthen cooperation with European countries - especially in science, innovation and research, she emphasized.

This year, the Pregl award recipients for exceptional doctoral work were:
Dr. Tine Curk, for his doctoral thesis "Modelling Multivalent Interactions", which he defended in November 2016 at the University of Cambridge, UK, at the Department of Theoretical Chemistry under the mentorship of Prof. Dr. Daan Frenkel.

In his work, Dr. Curk investigated the operation of multivalent interactions. A multivalent entity, e.g. a protein, a nano-particle, a virus, or a polymer usually forms several bonds with the substrate. Using the analytical theory and computer simulations, the candidate has developed a model for calculating the overall interaction on the basis of the chemical properties of individual bonds. With this model, a set of simple rules for designing multi-valued interactions is created. The most important discovery described by Dr. Curk's doctoral thesis is that specific targeting of cells is possible even without selective markers. The doctoral work also explains the super-selectivity of multi-valent polymers and the specificity of the activation of TLR9 receptors of the immune system with DNA-peptide aggregates. The discovery that DNA-peptide assemblies activate TLR9 receptors could explain the mechanism of the formation of certain autoimmune diseases. The results of these studies have been published in the most prestigious journals, such as PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America), JACS (Journal of the American Chemical Society) and Nature Materials.
The committee chose Dr. Curk because of the quality of his published work, the originality of his approaches, and the applicability of the concept for the detection of bacterial genomic DNA.
Dr. Tina Lebar received the Pregl Award for the doctoral thesis "Planning of Gene Regulatory Networks based on DNA-bound Proteins", which she defended in July 2017 at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Ljubljana under the mentorship of Prof. Dr. Mojca Benčina.

In the doctoral thesis, Tina Lebar deals with genetic regulatory networks consisting of various molecular elements that control processes in cells depending on the chemical or physical signals present, thus determining the behaviour of the cells. Using logical elements in cellular systems, modified cells can act as 'biological devices' to perform various functions. Most biological systems built up-to-date use natural bacterial regulatory elements, which has certain limitations. In the doctoral research, Dr. Tina Lebar used transcription factors based on modular, planned DNA binding proteins, which can be prepared in an unlimited number for any DNA sequence, while retaining their basic biochemical properties. She prepared and evaluated transcriptional repressors and activators based on two DNA binding platforms, TAL effectors and the CRISPR/dCas9 system. The newly-prepared transcription factors were associated with a light activation system, thereby achieving that the cells responded to the illumination of the blue light. The usefulness of the planned transcription elements was demonstrated by constructing a gene bistable switch and a gene oscillator. At the same time, the unique mechanism for binding TAL effectors to DNA was used to introduce a new method of transcriptional inhibition by targeted displacement of transcription activators, which is the original way of regulating gene expression. On the basis of this principle, she presented the implementation of all 16 two input logical operations and a partial adder in mammalian cells. Planned cells that perform complex tasks, such as data storage or logical operations, are useful in various biotechnological and medical applications when a controlled response of cells to external signals is required. Dr. Tina Lebar published her doctoral thesis in the prestigious scientific journals Nature Communications and ACS Synthetic Biology. 
The committee estimates that the doctoral work is an important contribution to the science and development of synthetic biology for biotechnological and medical applications, but also represents visionary work in the field of biological computing.

Dr. Vojč Kocman received the award for the doctoral thesis "Structural studies of guanine-rich oligonucleotides associated with autism", which he defended in June 2017 at the Faculty of Chemistry and Chemical Technology, University of Ljubljana under the mentorship of Prof. Dr. Janez Plavec.

In his doctoral thesis, Dr. Kocman studied the structures of G-quadruplexes, into which guanine-rich DNA can be coiled in the presence of suitable cations. He accurately described the structure of oligonucleotides VK1 and VK34, which are located within the regulatory region of the PLEKGH3 gene at the fourteenth human chromosome. This gene is, among other things, involved in regulating the development and functioning of neurons, and its mutations have been linked to the development of autism. Both structures are four-stranded, but are very different from the previously known four-stranded structures of the G-quadruplex. In the doctoral thesis, he also reported on 46 other oligonucleotides, found in the regulatory regions of 38 human genes, which are associated with the development of the nervous system and neurological disorders, abnormal bone and cartilage growth, cancer development, and regulation of basic cell processes. By means of 1D 1H NMR and CD spectroscopy, Dr. Kocman confirmed that all 46 potentially biologically interesting oligonucleotides are coiled into structures similar to VK1 and VK34. In this way, he discovered a new four-strand structural family, which he and his colleagues called AGCGA-quadruplexes.
Dr. Vojč Kocman published the results of his work as the first author in two publications in the Nature Communications magazine.
In their selection, the committee took into account the publications, the presentation quality, the importance of the field, and the originality of the obtained results. 

The Janko Jamnik scholarship was also awarded at the event. This year's scholarship was awarded on the basis of a public tender, which received a good number of applications. In the selection process, based on the candidates' curricula vitae with an emphasis on study achievements and an essay on one of the current issues at the Institute, candidates were selected by the special committee composed of distinguished researchers of the Institute of Chemistry, which was appointed by the Institute's scientific council and which is also responsible for awarding the Pregl award for outstanding doctoral work. An interview was held with two best-ranked candidates, where both of them excelled - especially the winner, Luka Kavčič.

Photos from the ceremony:   

The honorary guest of the ceremony was the Ambassador of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, her Excellency Ms. Sophie Honey

The guests were welcomed by the Director of the Institute of Chemistry, Prof. Dr. Gregor Anderluh

Ambassador Sophie Honey had a short lecture on the topic:
UK-Slovenia future cooperation on science: bilateral relationship post-Brexit


The recipient of the Janko Jamnik scholarship is Luka Kavčič 


Prof. Dr. Nataša Zabukovec Logar, a representative of the Scientific Council, presented documents to all who in 2017 completed their research work for the Doctorate of Science at the  Institute of Chemistry. Beside her in this picture is Dr. Matic Kisovec.


Director Prof. Dr. Gregor Anderluh and Luka Kavčič, the new Institute of Chemistry scholarship holder

Photo: Jernej Stare



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