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Research Fellows Directory

Gerben van Ooijen

Dr Gerben van Ooijen

Research Fellow


University of Edinburgh

Research summary

Our bodies anticipate and adapt to the rhythms of night and day thanks to our body clock. My research has recently found an unexpected role for an essential mineral in our diets, magnesium, to sustain our cellular biological rhythms.

Like humans, other animals as well as plants, fungi, and some bacteria have a biological clock, also called circadian clock, in each individual cell. The clock influences many aspects of health and disease in our own bodies, but equally in crop plants and microbes used for industrial biotechnology. In a paper published in Nature, we report that magnesium helps control how cells cope with the natural environmental cycle of day and night.

Experiments in cells from three major types of biological organisms - algae, people, and fungi – found in each case that levels of magnesium in a cell rise and fall in a daily cycle. My laboratory at the University of Edinburgh worked together with teams at the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology in Cambridge and at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile to find that this oscillation was critical to sustain the 24-hour clock.

A surprising discovery was that it also had an enormous impact on cellular metabolism – how fast cells can convert nutrients into energy – throughout the course of a day. Further tests showed that magnesium levels were linked to the cells’ ability to consume the biological equivalent of fuel; the energy molecule ATP (or adenosine triphosphate). It was already known that magnesium is essential to help living things convert this fuel, but we now found that it also controls when this biological function takes place, and how efficiently.

It is now essential to find out how these fundamentally novel observations translate to whole tissues or organisms, to make us better equipped to influence biological rhythms in complex organisms for future medical and agricultural purposes.

Interests and expertise (Subject groups)

Grants awarded

Conserved cellular timekeeping mechanisms in eukaryotes

Scheme: University Research Fellowship

Dates: Nov 2017 - Oct 2020

Value: £311,631.62

Chemical systems biology to study circadian control of plant immunity

Scheme: University Research Fellowship

Dates: Nov 2012 - Oct 2017

Value: £495,870.98