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Support for wild researcher ideas

Three researchers from the Faculty of Science have each received DKK 2 million from VILLUM FONDEN to try out wild ideas.

By Birgitte Svennevig, , 10/8/2020

‘One experiment is better than 1,000 expert assumptions.’

Villum Kann Rasmussen, founder of VILLUM FONDEN, certainly lived up to that motto. Experimenting tirelessly, he invented everything from coffee machines and wind turbines to the VELUX skylight.

The Villum Experiment programme puts millions behind this motto and now gives Iris Adam from the Department of Biology, Daniel Wüstner from the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Himanshu Khandelia from the Department of Physics, Chemistry and Pharmacy the opportunity to try out their wildest ideas. They have each received DKK 2 million from the foundation.

Iris Adam: The singing bird brain: an out-of-body experiment

Song learning in songbirds is the best animal model we have for studying the neural processes underlying human speech acquisition. Speech and song learning involve complex interactions between the brain, body, and the surrounding environment, and it is not possible to predict sound from neural recordings.

Due to technical limitations it is very challenging to simultaneously access an entire motor system from cortex to behavior. In her Villum Experiment, Iris Adam will develop an experimental set-up to simultaneously study the brain and vocal organ of songbirds. Because song is a learned, complex fine motor skill driven by the cortex, results can be directly applied and generalized to motor control in higher vertebrates and humans.

If successful, this approach will transform our understanding of song and speech control as well as motor control in general.

Himanshu Khandelia: Voltage sensing in biological systems

Ion channels in lipid membranes are responsible for key cellular functions like the beating of the heart, nerve signaling and the sensations of heat, pain and hearing. To carry out these functions, channels need to “sense” the transmembrane voltage in a membrane, much like a voltmeter in an electrical circuit.

Some such voltage-sensing mechanisms are well-known in literature. In our Villum experiment, we will look for novel mechanisms of voltage sensing in biological systems, based on principles of soft matter physics. Our research will potentially trigger a whole new research direction in ion channel biology and lead to the development of better hearing devices.

The project is in collaboration with the University of Aarhus.

Daniel Wüstner: Towards a thinking x-ray microscope: Deep learning to predict fluorescence labels of cellular organelles in soft x-ray tomography

Despite the recent progress in imaging cells by various techniques, there is a fundamental lack of connecting molecular identity with cellular ultrastructure. Fluorescence labelling and sensitive imaging can visualize the molecular components underlying the machinery of living cells but does not resolve the structural context in which cellular processes take place.

Soft x-ray tomography (SXT) is a revolutionizing technique to study the ultrastructure of cells in a hydrated state with an isotropic resolution of about 50 nm in all three dimensions. We will apply advanced deep learning methods to transfer knowledge between both imaging modalities and thereby to map molecular identity to cellular ultrastructure.

This will revolutionize correlative imaging and add a new dimension to well-established fluorescence microscopy applications. At the same time, our results will make x-ray microscopy broadly applicable to life scientists in academia and industry.


VILLUM FONDEN (a part of THE VELUX FOUNDATIONS) is a philanthropic foundation that supports technical and scientific research as well as environmental, social and cultural projects in Denmark and internationally. In 2019, VILLUM FONDEN granted approx. EUR 144 million.

VILLUM FONDEN was established in 1971 by graduate engineer Villum Kann Rasmussen - the founder of VELUX and other companies in the VKR Group, whose mission it is to bring daylight, fresh air and a better environment into people’s everyday lives. VILLUM FONDEN is a majority shareholder in the VKR Group.

Editing was completed: 08.10.2020