The European Research Council (ERC) is unique in its kind in Europe supporting individual top researchers from anywhere in the world for 5 years to embark on an innovative and highly challenging research project. The ERC Program covers all levels of research career and the Advanced Grants are awarded to exceptional leaders in research embarking on a novel high-risk/high gain research line. No less than 5 VIB researchers have been awarded this very competitive and widely acknowledged benchmarks of scientific excellence.
Dr. Lieve Ongena, Senior Science Policy Manager, heading the international grants team at VIB: “We are extremely proud of this achievement. It is – again – an important international recognition by international peers of the high quality and relevance of the research at VIB. It fills us with pride that for some researchers it is their second Advanced ERC grant.”
VIB’s ERC Advanced grant recipients for 2019 are Prof. Dirk Inzé, Prof. Wout Boerjan, Prof. Yves Van de Peer (VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology), Prof. Kodi Ravichandran (VIB-UGent Center for Inflammation Research) and Prof. Bart De Strooper (VIB-KU Leuven Center for Brain & Disease Research). With a substantial research budget of about 2,5 million Euros each, they will explore the innovative research projects which are summarized below.
Prof. Dirk Inzé (VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology), project: Breedit.
Prof. Inzé and his team will explore a novel crossing scheme that allows for a swift evaluation of combinations of potential yield contributing gene variants by unifying ‘classical’ breeding with gene-centric molecular biology. Phenotypic evaluations of CRISPR/Cas9 edited plants throughout plant development will be done on the in-house automated, image-analysis based, phenotyping platform. This work will be a major step forward in integrating basic knowledge on growth promotion genes with plant breeding and has the potential to provoke a paradigm shift in improving crop yield.
Prof. Dirk Inzé looks forward to start developing this new approach and take a great step forward in modern plant breeding strategies: “I am extremely pleased that the ERC allows my team to develop an innovative concept that has the potential to revolutionize crop improvement.”
Prof. Wout Boerjan (VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology), project: Popmet.
Prof. Boerjan and his team will use the CSPP algorithm, an innovative method recently developed in the lab, to predict the structures of metabolites along with their biosynthetic pathways in poplar. In combination with genome-wide association studies, genes encoding enzymes in these predicted pathways will be identified that will further be studied either by crossing natural poplars or by CRISPR/Cas9-based gene editing in poplar. This large-scale metabolite and pathway identification effort will lay the foundation for systems biology research in poplar and will shape opportunities to further develop this species as an industrial wood-producing crop.
Prof Wout Boerjan voices his enthusiasm: “It is exciting to realize that the data that will be generated in this project will be fundamental in so many studies aimed at understanding the fascinating biology of trees. We will contribute to topics as diverse wood formation, interactions of trees with their environment, and the valorization of wood in the bio-economy. “
Prof. Yves Van de Peer (VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology), project: double trouble.
Prof. Van de Peer and his team will unravel the mechanistic underpinnings of why and how polyploids can outcompete non-polyploids. They will replay the ‘genome duplication tape of life’ in two different model systems, Chlamydomonas and Spirodela. Long-term evolutionary experiments will be complemented with in silico experiments based on so-called digital organisms running on artificial genomes. By integrating the results obtained from these in vivo and in silico experiments, they will obtain important novel insights in the adaptive potential of polyploids under stressful conditions or during times of environmental and/or climate change.
Prof. Yves Van de Peer says: “Because of a previous ERC grant, we were able to show – through the careful analysis of many plant genome sequences - that polyploidy is often an evolutionary dead end. But, in times of environmental upheaval or climate change, it might also confer an evolutionary advantage, possibly explaining why polyploids can, for instance, escape extinction. The current ERC grant, through evolutionary experiments with both real and digital organisms, allows to build on this observation and to focus on the structural and functional genomic changes underlying adaptation in polyploids in times of environmental turmoil.”
Prof. Kodi Ravichandran (VIB-UGent Center for Inflammation Research), project Sperm-egg Phusion:
Prof. Ravichandran and his team will investigate the role of specific lipids that are part of the cell wall of viable sperm in mammalian fertilization, along with the part played by the complementary receptors on egg cells. They will test this at a molecular, biochemical, cellular, functional, and genetic level, uniting the tools and knowledge from the fields of fertilization and phagocytosis that normally do not intersect. The results of these studies are expected to be highly relevant for both male and female reproductive health and fertility.
“This is a relatively new direction for our group, and although fertilization is so fundamental for species survival, surprisingly, there are still many gaps in our understanding” says Prof. Kodi Ravichandran, who has a PhD and a degree in Veterinary Medicine. “Besides feeling very honored to receive this award, scientifically this is quite exciting. This ERC project could help us better define the basic biology of fertilization, and adapt this knowledge to address fertility issues in humans, and for potential veterinary use.”
Prof. Bart De Strooper (VIB-KU Leuven Center for Brain & Disease Research), project: cellphase_AD.
Prof. De Strooper and his team will use mouse-human chimeric mouse models to test the effects of genetic risk factors associated with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) on transplanted brain cells derived from patient stem cells. Next, they will generate inducible CRISPR/Cas9 stem cell lines to manipulate the expression of four selected Alzheimer genes linked to a putative cholesterol pathway but also affecting inflammation. They aim to identify and validate multiple novel drug targets for Alzheimer’s.
“We’re very excited to start this project, which will provide us with humanized models for Alzheimer’s disease,” prof. De Strooper says. “We will be able to explore human genetics in human cells in a living brain. We hope to find out how a person’s genetic makeup affects the microglia and astroglia in the context of Alzheimer’s disease. Despite the recent setbacks in clinical trials, we are making fast progress in understanding the disease and using humanized models will bring our findings faster to the patients.”
Find the ERC Press Release here