They master DNA nanotechnology and can shape proteins into pyramids. They explore hydrophobicity, the physical property of repelling water, and develop solutions for cancer immunotherapy or new materials for efficient storage of solar energy. The National Institute of Chemistry (NIC) is the second largest research institution in Slovenia, and is widely recognized for its achievements in both basic and applied research.
The Institute employs over 260 researchers working in 14 laboratories and two infrastructure centres. Its main focus lies in two major areas, the life sciences and material technology, with special emphasis on genomics, biotechnology for health and nanotechnology. One of the most publicized discoveries made by NIC’s scientists was in the field of biotechnology. A group led by Roman Jerala, a specialist in biosynthesis and nanobiomaterials, developed a protein that can fold itself into complex designed structures, a task computational biologists had spent decades trying to achieve. The discovery was published in the journal Nature in 2013, with potential uses in medicine, in making novel catalysts capable of carrying out specific chemical reactions in sequence, or even in engineering new data storage devices and other electronic materials.
In spring 2017, researchers at the NIC’s Department of Synthetic Biology and Immunology published two more articles in Nature. In the first, they presented the discovery of a new structural family of oligonucleotides, short DNA or RNA molecules. The second study revealed how short fragments of DNA amplify immune responses to bacterial and viral DNA.
“Hydrophobicity or water repelling is one of the most important phenomena in nature. The physical origin of hydrophobicity remains unclear even after seven decades of intense research,” wrote a group of NIC researchers in the abstract of their article, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America earlier this year. They found out a completely new theoretical explanation for the phenomenon based on electrostatic screening. Another group from the Department of Inorganic Chemistry and Technology has prepared a stable microporous aluminophosphate. with the highest sorption-based energy-storage capacity yet reported. This makes a superior material for solar-energy storage and application in heat pumps and cooling devices. To find out new sustainable technologies, and thus contribute to environmental protection, is one of the key focuses of the Institute. For example, another group of researchers, led by Robert Dominko, works on the development of new electrochemical materials which could lead to more efficient battery systems. Last year the journal Nature Materials published details of an important discovery made by a group of researchers from Slovenia, Switzerland and Japan on the intriguing properties of bismuth ferrite, a substance with potential applications in photovoltaics. The group was led by experts from the two top Slovenian scientific institutions, NIC and the Josef Stefan Institute.
The NIC is relatively young, and was only established in 1946. In 2013, the Institute opened a new research centre with state of the art research equipment, including a transmission electron microscope with chemical analysis, the only one of its kind in this part of Europe. The new centre cost 15 million euros, and is based in a low-energy building that is named after Fritz Pregl, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry while working in Austria, although was Slovenian in origin and born in Ljubljana. If we overlook the Nobel Peace Prize that was given to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body with a prominent Slovenian member, Lučka Kajfež Bogataj, Pregl is the only Slovenian to have won a Nobel prize. Moreover, since chemistry remains the field where Slovenian scientists perhaps excel more than any other, we must wonder if this is a coincidence?
NIC works closely with industry, and as Slovenia has a strong pharmaceutical industry it comes as no surprise that many NIC projects are related to new developments in this sector.