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Niek Buurma

Dr Niek Buurma

Senior Lecturer in Physical Organic Chemistry

School of Chemistry

+44 29208 70301
Main Building, Room 1.53, Park Place, Cardiff, CF10 3AT
Available for postgraduate supervision


Niek grew up in the Netherlands, surrounded by water, and it is therefore not surprising that research in our group is aimed at understanding reactions and interactions in aqueous solutions. Our research is focused on two main areas.

The first area is the development of conjugated DNA-binders with useful optoelectronic properties for application as sensitisers in molecular diagnostics and biosensors, for use in forensics, as well as for use in self-assembled nanobioelectronic systems. Our contributions to this area include the synthesis of new DNA-binding compounds and studies of their DNA-binding properties using a variety of biophysical techniques. To support these studies, we also develop data-analysis software, in particular software for the analysis of isothermal titration calorimetry (ITC) data for complex coupled equilibria.

The second area of interest involves the study of organic reactions in aqueous solutions. We focus on 1) pharmaceutically relevant racemisation processes, 2) kinetic and mechanistic studies of surfactant-assisted metal-catalysed as well as nanoparticle-catalysed reactions, 3) reactivity studies using automated reaction optimisers based on artificial intelligence (AI), and 4) micellar medium effects.

The group is involved in international collaborations as well as collaborations with industry.

Niek is active in science outreach and has presented the group’s research projects at Pint of Science in 2017, 2018 and 2019). Our work on racemisation has featured on BBC News.

For more information, click on the 'Research' tab above.





















Adrannau llyfrau



The two main areas of research in the group (development of conjugated DNA-binders & study of organic reactions in aqueous solutions) encompass several linked projects.

Targeting DNA

DNA is an important target for potential drugs and genosensors. Molecules allowing control over selectivity and affinity for DNA are therefore of particular interest as genosensors (and/or therapeutic agents). We develop new DNA-binding motifs consisting of fully conjugated systems which display changes in optoelectronic properties upon interaction with DNA. These molecules are used as sensitisers in biosensors that detect the presence of bacterial pathogens through detecting their unique DNA sequences. In these sensors, formation of a double helix between a capture strand and a target strand is highlighted because the sensitisers bind to the formed duplex DNA.

Similarly, molecules targeting DNA can be used in applications in forensics. We develop dyes for facile and safe detection of biological trace evidence in crime scenes, without degrading the evidence in the process. We have identified several compounds of interest which we are testing using physical chemistry methods in models of crime scenes to assess sensitivity and selectivity.

Apart from being an interesting target for biomedical and forensic applications, DNA in itself forms a versatile building block for a range of 3D structures. Combining these 3D structures with DNA-binding molecules having interesting electronic properties opens up the world of nanobioelectronics. In this area, we are developing new approaches and analytical techniques to identify the building blocks for self-assembled functional nanostructures.

For an overview of these applications, see our book chapter in “DNA in Supramolecular Chemistry and Nanotechnology”.

Organic reactivity in aqueous solutions

Our interest in organic reactivity focuses on aqueous solutions.

Kinetic and mechanistic studies of racemisation reactions in aqueous solutions are one of our key areas of interest. Despite tremendous interest in enantioselective synthesis, the area of chiral stability had been ignored for decades. As a result, significant resources are spent on enantioselective synthesis of pointless stereogenic centres, i.e. stereogenic centres that will quickly racemise when used in biologically relevant solutions. We have developed the first quantitative prediction of racemisation risk with general applicability. This predictive method allows researchers in industry and academia to avoid unstable stereogenic centres and was published as a “Hot Paper” in Angewandte Chemie . This research has obvious applications in medicinal chemistry and beyond.

We also apply our understanding of reaction medium effects in aqueous solutions in the development of transition metal-catalysed reactions using both molecular complexes and nanoparticles as catalysts.

Finally, we are interested in mechanistic studies of photochemical fading processes and we carry out such studies in collaboration with the group of Dr Joe Beames.

Model and method development

Our research frequently requires the development of new mathematical models or the development of new experimental techniques.

One of the techniques used for the study of interactions with DNA and other (bio)macromolecules is isothermal titration calorimetry (ITC). We develop data-analysis software for complex (coupled) equilibria. Our software combines modular combination of interaction processes, optimisation algorithms from artificial intelligence, and powerful post-fitting parameter-validity analysis. This combination ensures maximum flexibility in data analysis while keeping parameters statistically significant. Our software is used worldwide and often forms the basis of collaborations with academia and industry.

Our studies of reactions and interactions also require development of mathematical models for the analysis of experimental data. For example, in addition to our software for the analysis of complex ITC data, we have developed models for the global analysis of pH- and temperature-dependent enzyme kinetics, for the analysis of kinetic data for catalysis by gold nanoparticles encapsulated within a thermosensitive shell, and for cooperative binding of metals to bivalent host systems.

Because of the need for quantitative data, much of our research is also supported by analytical chemistry. The use of existing analytical techniques and development of new techniques is therefore also important.

Artificial intelligence in chemistry

The group has developed data-analysis software for well over a decade. The artificial intelligence algorithms used in data analysis also offer potential in reaction optimisation. We are using such algorithms, running on Raspberry Pi computers, to develop low-cost automated reaction-optimisation systems in collaboration with the group of Joe Beames. One of the reasons for developing these systems is that we believe that reaction-optimisation platforms should be affordable to all research groups so that research in chemistry remains accessible to everyone who wants to explore a good synthetic idea.


CH4203 Organic Chemistry of Multiply bonded Systems

CH3315 Advanced Organic Chemistry

CH4405 Advanced Techniques in Biophysical Chemistry

CHT206 Structure and mechanism in organic chemistry

CHT216 Colloquium

CHT229 Advanced Techniques in Biophysical Chemistry

CHT232 Key skills for postgraduate chemists

Details of modules can be found in course finder.


Niek obtained his MSc (1997, cum laude) and PhD (2003, cum laude) under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Jan B. F. N. Engberts at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Niek was then a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield (2002-2006) with Prof C. A. Hunter and Dr. I. Haq. Niek was appointed Lecturer in Physical Organic Chemistry at Cardiff University in 2006.

Niek is a Member of the Royal Society of Chemistry, Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, Secretary of the RSC Physical Organic Chemistry Group, Member of the Core Team of the EPSRC Directed Assembly Network.

Unilever Research Prize 1998, Maître de Conférences invité at l’Université de Toulouse 3 - Paul Sabatier 2016.