My name is Daan Swarts, and since 2019 I am an assistant professor at Wageningen University in the Laboratory of Biochemistry. In my independent research group, we focus on the characterization of bacterial immune systems. Also bacteria can get ‘sick’: invading nucleic acids such as viruses (bacteriophages) can kill cells, and other mobile genetic elements such as plasmids and transposons can be a metabolic burden or reduce fitness. Bacterial immune systems protect their host against such mobile genetic elements. Well-known examples of such systems are restriction-modification systems and CRISPR-Cas, but our research focuses on distinct immune systems of which the evolution, functionality, mechanisms, and structures are unknown. We are mainly interested in these systems from a fundamental point of view, but if interesting systems are found they might be repurposed for DNA editing or detection.
During my PhD (performed in the group of Prof. dr. John van der Oost at Wageningen University) my interest in bacterial immune systems was raised: I focused on the characterization of prokarytic Argonaute proteins (pAgos), which are homologous to eukaryotic Argonaute proteins (the key enzyme in RNA silencing pathways). We uncovered that pAgos interfere not with RNA but with DNA, and can protect their against invading DNA. During my PhD I got interested in protein structures, and wanted to learn how to apply structural biology methods. I continued my research as a post-doctoral EMBO fellow in the group of Prof. dr. Martin Jinek at the University of Zurich. There, my research revolved around determination of the structure and mechanisms of CRISPR-Cas12a, a CRISPR effector enzyme with capacities similar to that of Cas9. I learned how to apply X-ray crystallography and interpret structures, which remains important in the research we currently perform in my research group.
We investigate prokaryotic immune systems using research techniques from various fields including bacterial genetics and biochemistry. X-ray crystallography is used to determine the macromolecular structures of proteins in complex with the nucleic acids that they interact with. Combined, this allows us to chart in detail the function and biochemical mechanisms of uncharacterized prokaryotic immune systems. Funded by a VENI, an ERC starting grant, and some independent PhD grants, my team currently consists of six PhD students and a technician. We recently published the first research paper from my group, in which we characterized an Argonaute-based immune system that kills its host to prevent spread to other bacteria (sorry no structures (yet…)).
In my free time (as far as that exists next to the tenure track), I like to spend time with my family (my girlfriend and I have a daughter (4y) and a son (1y)), travel, be outside in nature, or play (board)games with friends. I also go to the gym and play field hockey to relieve pressure. During the corona pandemic, I also picked up gardening as a hobby. I am looking forward to meet researchers in the Dutch crystallography field in person, now this is possible again!