Peter Peters Peter Peters Sacha Ruland

Reading a paper on the moon

In Body
Written by  Femke Kools Wednesday, 15 January 2014 08:45

Peter Peters rides his tractor from his father’s farm to his grandfather’s farm. His grandfather is also called Peter, as are many of the eldest sons in the Peters family. With fitting pride, this Peter shows off his ancestral land in Hunsel, Central Limburg. Well into his teens, it seemed that he, like his forefathers, would spend his life on this land. Until he was bitten by the research bug, that is. Now a professor of Nanobiology, he is one of the world’s leading experts in nanomolecular research on the immune system. “Quite the contrast, isn’t it?”, he says from his oldtimer. Peters recently became Maastricht University’s first ‘university professor’.

Peters stays with his partner in Hunsel almost every weekend. On the grounds of his father’s farm, now occupied by his brother, lies a small but pretty outbuilding fringed by an orchard and a barn for the restored tractor. As young as eight, Peters would drive around the property helping his father. To those with a keen eye, it was clear even then that he was more researcher than farmer: “I’d secretly tinker with the plough depths, trying to improve the crop yields.”

Sleepless night

At the age of 16 Peters saw a bull mount an artificial cow, and he was allowed to look at the sperm cells through a microscope. A whole new world opened up to him – on several fronts. “There wasn’t much in the way of sex education in this village. But more importantly, I was fascinated by the lab environment and the image of those living, moving sperm cells.” After a sleepless night, he informed his father that farming wasn’t for him. “He understood; he too would have preferred to study rather than take over his father’s farm.”

As the only child in the village who wanted to study, Peters faced a great deal of scepticism. But his parents were supportive. During primary school, the headmaster and pastor did not appreciate his rebellious attitude towards the bible (“These days I’m a committed Darwinist”). After two difficult years, his father announced the family would from then on be attending church in the neighbouring village of Thorn. His mother would throw the angry letters from the pastor, unopened, into the stove.
It is to such experiences that Peters accredits his tremendous drive when he found himself in a lab at last. Via a technical high school and vocational training as an analyst, he ended up in a research lab in the Utrecht Pathology Institute. “I became passionate about research, to the extreme. I didn’t want to go home; I’d just work in the lab from early morning till late at night on my research on lymphoma. I didn’t see it as work, but more as a hobby.” That feeling persists to the present day.

Discovering secrets

Peters went on to study Medical Biology at Utrecht University. He still remembers how it felt when he looked through an electron microscope for the first time. “I thought to myself: I want to do this for the rest of my life. You see everything in a thousand times more detail. Now the secrets of cells would be unveiled, I was sure of it, and I decided I wanted to know everything about them.” Today he is among the world’s 100 leading experts in his field. He still studies the immune system; specifically, the role of white blood cells in infection and the development of cancer.

“Tumour cells are actually degenerate cells that have learned to escape the immune system. Our task is to discover how they do that, and how you can train the immune system to break them down.” To understand what goes wrong in such cells, fundamental knowledge about the workings of cells at the nano scale is needed. This is still uncharted territory, which Peters has never stopped exploring: after his PhD in Utrecht, he spent three years doing research in the USA and fifteen years at the Netherlands Cancer Institute/Antoni van Leeuwenhoek Hospital in Amsterdam. “Proteins are the workhorses of the cell. We know that cancer is caused by an abnormality in our DNA code, which is then translated into a protein. But we don’t know what protein structures look like in 3D, or what’s going wrong with them.”

3D structure

To illustrate: the commonest genetic mutation is cystic fibrosis. A single abnormal line on the DNA gives a chloride pump in the intestines and lungs a slightly different 3D structure, making it dysfunctional. “Like a pebble in a faucet, this blocks the chloride emissions to the pancreas, resulting in a disturbed water balance, cystic fibrosis and early death. So you want to know how that works, and how we can reset that protein to its original form – because it is possible to influence protein structures.” In recent years, Peters has made important breakthroughs in the localisation of protein complexes in the cell. In the journal Cell in 2007, his group also published pioneering results on the workings of protein complexes in the bacteria that cause tuberculosis. Peters and others are still working on further fundamental research based on this finding, aiming to improve the vaccine currently used against tuberculosis.

City of Maastricht

To laypeople, the nanomolecular world is quite alien. One millimetre of tissue contains a million cells, and in every cell thousands of proteins work together in complexes. We can now identify the proteins, but how they come together in the form of a protein complex with a certain function remains a mystery. In the coming decade, Peters hopes to unravel the 3D structure and function of these protein complexes. “Compare a cell with the city of Maastricht. We know that in this city there are bricks, tiles, tree leaves and branches, but we don’t know which components together form a house. Improvements in technology will help, but we still have to make choices: Which street in Maastricht will we research? What is feasible and, above all, relevant for medicine?”

Reading the newspaper

Peters’s relocation from Amsterdam to Maastricht dovetails with Maastricht University’s ambition to become a major player in scientific imaging. Brains Unlimited, with its Tesla 7 and 9.4 scanners, is a unique facility in the Netherlands. Peters’s lab in Maastricht will be just as unique, with four highly advanced microscopes for making and analysing cell preparations. “My microscopes have to be so powerful and so stable that I could read a newspaper on the moon.” He will collaborate with researchers from related disciplines in Maastricht. He will also be closely involved with new study programmes, aiming to recruit the best students for PhD research in his lab. As a ‘university professor’, his teaching and administrative tasks will be limited. “For me, this title stands for academic freedom, uninhibited creativity and innovation. The output? Good publications and valorisation of knowledge.” Bureaucracy and meetings are not his forte: beyond discussions with his research team on their progress, endless formal meetings are his idea of a nightmare.. “I’m passionate about my research and about training young researchers. I’m always thinking up new experiments, even when I’m on the tractor.”


 Peter Peters (1957) has been university professor in Nanobiology at Maastricht University since 1 January 2014. He is currently establishing a research institute specialising in advanced macromolecular imaging, a project that falls under the umbrella of the Kennis-As Limburg investment programme. More information about the Institute of Nanoscopy:
A video portret of Peter Peters can be found online 



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