Dr. Bernd Winter awarded prestigious ERC Advanced Grant to research chiral molecules in water

April 01, 2020
Bernd Winter, who leads the Liquid Microjet project in the Molecular Physics Department, has been awarded an Advanced Grant from the European Research Council (ERC) endowed with €2.5 million over a period of five years.

The European Research Council awards multiple Advanced Grants each year to established, leading scientists to provide long-term funding to pursue a groundbreaking, high-risk project. With a success rate of under 10% in this round of ERC funding, Bernd Winter is more than happy that his proposal for the project AQUACHIRAL was accepted. The award enables him and his team to explore certain molecular properties in water environments.

“We’re looking at how molecules behave in water, because most chemical reactions in lifeforms take place in aqueous environments”, says Winter. “Probing biochemical molecules and their reactions in this phase is therefore indispensable for advancing fundamental and applied science.” Winter received the Advanced Grant to study a particular molecular property: chirality. Chirality is a mirroring phenomenon where two forms cannot be superimposed onto one another – much like one’s left and right hands are congruent when put together, but not when one is put on top of the other. A similar phenomenon exists in chemistry, where there are two forms of chiral molecules (left- and right-handed), called enantiomers (from the Greek for “opposite forms”). Enantiomers have identical physical and chemical properties but interact differently with other chiral objects.

Winter and his group at the Fritz Haber Institute are exploring these chiral complexes for various reasons. “We’re are trying to shed light on biochemical fundamentals”, explains Winter. “After all, many if not most of the substances studied in the field of biology are chiral. By understanding the property of chirality we will automatically increase our knowledge about the inner workings of living organisms.” The results of their work may also be relevant for the pharmaceutical industry, because many common drugs use chiral compounds. There the increase of knowledge could potentially lead to more effective drug design.

Within the AQUACHIRAL project Winter and his group will develop and exploit novel technologies to address two key challenges: improved detection of chirality in aqueous solution using site and chemical state-specific electronic-structure fingerprints, and understanding the energetics that lead to enantiomer-specific chemical reactions.

Because enantiomers interact differently with circularly polarized light, Winter uses a novel aspect of photoelectron spectroscopy as a tool to detect chirality: photoelectron circular dichroism (PECD), which exploits a particular forward-backward asymmetry in the flux of the emitted photoelectrons. What makes PECD unique is that it exceeds absorption-based chiroptical signals by orders of magnitude, and measuring this effect in aqueous solution from chiral molecules would mark a scientific breakthrough.

Bernd Winter did his Ph.D. work at the Fritz Haber Institute, Germany, and graduated at the Free University of Berlin, Germany. He worked as a postdoc at Argonne National Laboratory, U.S.A., and at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Garching, Germany. In the mid-1990s he joined the Max Born Institute for Nonlinear Optics and Short Pulse Spectroscopy, Berlin, where he was a staff researcher until 2009, when he transferred to BESSY, now Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin. Currently, Winter is a Group Leader at the Fritz Haber Institute, Molecular Physics Department, and his research interests include liquid-jet photoelectron spectroscopy and the electronic structure of aqueous solutions.

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