Building global research communities

hands holding a globe

COST is an EU initiative but its remit covers the whole of Europe and beyond. Borders should not be barriers to cooperation in science and technology. COST helps to build global research and innovation communities and its Actions are open to participants from all around the world.

A global exchange of research skills, sharing resources and facilitating scientific mobility is at the core of COST Actions and often builds the foundations of enduring and valuable long-term research relationships.

Bread bugs

Sourdough bread is widely consumed worldwide and is appreciated for its distinct flavour, texture and healthy attributes. It is a result of spontaneous fermentation by naturally occurring yeasts and lactic acid bacteria and was probably one of the first microbial processes employed by humanity for food production.

COST Action SOURDOMICS (SOURDOugh biotechnology network towards novel, healthier and sustainable food and bIoproCesseS) brought together scientists and small enterprises to study sourdough technologies along the entire value chain from sustainable cereals’ production, through fermentation processes, to use of by-products in a circular economy.

“Sustainable bioprocesses have much to contribute from a circular economy standpoint, “ says Professor Elena Bartkiene from the Lithuanian University of Health Sciences and Vice-Chair of the Action. “There are different sourdoughs in different countries, each with their specific characteristics due to the microorganisms that are involved in the fermentation.”

The aim of the Action was to bring together know-how from decades of international research and to examine opportunities to further exploit Sourdough Biotechnology in new industrial, agricultural and commercial applications.

Today the Action has 278 members from 56 countries spread over five continents – a truly global affair. “Since the start we have seen a huge increase in participation including from industry,” says Elena. “Not just in terms of breadmaking but industrial biotechnology applications for making chemicals, nutraceuticals and many types of bioproducts.”

The global benefits have been summarised by Professor. Tamer Gamel of Alexandria University, Egypt and a member of the Action. “One of the main benefits is the networking. To have more collaborations is very beneficial for African partners. Also, once you start being involved in one project, you may have the chance of getting involved in additional ones, and join new collaborations,” he commented.

Elena sees the Action producing long-term success through the partnerships that have been established and will continue beyond the Action. “All participants have great respect for each other, and the processes are transparent,” she explains. “This produces effective engagement and trust: we are all working from a common understanding of the issues.”

Six books and a large number of papers have resulted from the Action so far and many Short-Term Scientific Missions (STSMs) and Training Schools have been organised.

Fast chemistry

The development of ultrashort intense light sources operating in the XUV and X-ray spectral regions could revolutionize chemistry, as they will give access to dynamic molecular processes occurring in the attosecond time scale. An attosecond is an incredibly short period of time: equal to 1×10−18 or one quintillionth of a second. As a comparison, an attosecond is to a second what a second is to 31.7 billion years or over twice the age of the Universe!

Large-scale facilities are currently being developed across Europe for this purpose and this infrastructure is accompanied by an increasing demand for accurate theoretical support. The COST Action AttoChem (Attosecond Chemistry) is looking to coordinate experimental and theoretical efforts in this field.

“AttoChem’s scientific goal is to extend the present capability to access the attosecond time scale and to do chemistry in a different way,” says Professor Fernando Martin of Universidad Autónoma de Madrid and Chair of the Action. “The European effort is supported by COST but there are groups all around the world trying to do similar research including in Asia and North America. From the very beginning of AttoChem we invited people from the US, Canada and elsewhere to participate.”

As this area of science is a recent, emerging field, research had been scattered and fragmented. “AttoChem has enabled better communication between groups around the world and initiated joint efforts,” says Fernando.

It also inspired a broader international networking initiative in the US called the Extreme Light in Intensity, Time, and Space (X-lites) network funded by the US National Science Foundation last year. AttoChem is now in its third year. “AttoChem and X-lites will work very closely together,” says Fernando. “I am one of the AttoChem representatives on X-lites and the X-lites Chair is one of the US representatives on AttoChem. We are seeking to align different research initiatives and the funding they can raise, so emerging collaborations can effectively materialise.”

Already a joint Training School on ‘The Frontiers of Attosecond and Ultrafast X-ray Science’ has been organised for March this year in Sicily. “AttoChem will cover the expenses of European participants and X-lites will fund US students’ participation,” explains Fernando. “The joint organisation will give the school a much higher visibility in the US.” The fourth annual AttoChem meeting will take place in Hungary in September and will also involve participation from X-lites. “This will allow us to better identify the research lines where a closer collaboration at the international level is needed,” says Fernando. “Attochem is making significant efforts to train the next generation of scientists who will lead these initiatives”.

“The close working relationship with X-lites helps to coordinate and organise research in this field on a global scale,” concludes Fernando. “This helps to improve the quality and efficiency of our work in this rapidly evolving scientific domain.”

Acid test

COST Action EuroMicropH (Understanding and exploiting the impacts of low pH on micro-organisms) is gathering together a global community of scientists working in different areas, from medicine to food and drink, on responses to low pH in microorganisms. “Fermentation processes or some human activities lead to acidification of the environment where microorganisms live and this can have positive or negative impacts on the activity of the organism and the process in general,” explains Action Chair Professor Daniela De Biase of Sapienza University in Rome. “Taking advantage of these effects is of great interest to a wide research community.”

“Of all our activities, overall, the most fruitful are the training schools and the STSMs,” continues Daniela. “It allows real sharing of knowledge and best practise. Most are in Europe, but we have also supported, for example, students to go to New Zealand to learn a new technology.”

A great example of cooperation with a participant from an International Partner Country is Dr Andreas Gombert from the University of Campinas in Brazil. “Andreas was participating from the beginning and although distant physically he has always given feedback and made suggestions. He was always there with his brain,” Daniela comments. Andreas was part of the initial Network of Proposers for the Action.

“COST is one of the few European mechanisms that I could access,” explains Andreas. “And I was fortunate to be able to participate in an Action event in February 2020 in Lisbon – just before the pandemic. In fact, I was invited to give the opening talk, which gave my work huge visibility.”

“COST enables people to get to know each other, to learn from each other, and build trust for further collaboration”

Dr Andreas Gombert from the University of Campinas in Brazil

This exposure has resulted in Andreas vastly increasing his network and engaging with new opportunities. “COST networking has so many non-tangible positive consequences,” he states. “Suddenly people know about your work and are asking you to evaluate papers, join editorial boards, and participate in collaborations.”

Andreas is also participating in another COST Action, YEAST4BIO, that arose directly from his involvement with EuroMicropH. “The most valuable benefit, personally, from COST has been to see the change in mindset in colleagues,” concludes Andreas. “COST enables people to get to know each other, to learn from each other, and build trust for further collaboration.”