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Research awards

Five new ERC-funded projects

München, 08/11/2017

Five early-career researchers have received generously endowed Starting Grants from the European Research Council (ERC) to carry out innovative projects at LMU

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Five early-career researchers at LMU have received Starting Grants from the European Research Council (ERC) for projects in various disciplines. These much sought-after, 5-year grants are each worth approximately 1.5 million euros in all, and are among the most prestigious of all European research awards. Submissions are evaluated solely on the basis of the applicant’s previous scientific record and the quality of the proposed project. Moreover, LMU offers the option of appointment to a Tenure Track Professorship to successful grantees, which can be converted into a permanent faculty position, subject to a positive assessment of performance.

Among the LMU-based awardees in the latest round are Dr. Caroline Gutjahr (Faculty of Biology), Dr. Sebastian Kobold (Faculty of Medicine), Professor Kai Papenfort (Faculty of Biology) and Dr. Alexander Urban (Faculty of Physics). In addition, a proposal submitted by Dr. Johannes Stigler (TU München) with LMU as host institution also won a Starting Grant. For the duration of the project, Dr. Stigler will be affiliated with Professor Karl-Peter Hopfner’s group at the LMU Gene Center (Faculty of Chemistry and Pharmacy).

The new grantees and their projects:

erc_gutjahr_130Dr. Caroline Gutjahr has headed an Emmy Noether Group based in the Genetics Section of the Faculty of Biology at LMU since 2015. Her research focuses on the symbiotic relationships between plants and mycorrhizal fungi.In her ERC project, entitled RECEIVE, Gutjahr will investigate the molecular regulation of arbuscular mycorrhiza symbiosis, which is among the most widespread inter-organismal partnerships found in the plant world. The mycorrhizal fungi colonize the root system of the host plant, and provide it with vital inorganic nutrients. The symbiosis also enhances the plant’s resistance to abiotic stresses and to pathogens. Since most crop plants host mycorrhizal fungi, Caroline Gutjahr‘s research is also of eminently practical relevance for agricultural productivity.

Caroline Gutjahr studied Biology in Freiburg and Aberdeen, and completed her Diploma thesis under the direction of Professor Peter Nick at Freiburg University. Following a stint as a Marie Curie Fellow in Professor Paola Bonfante’s group at Turin University, she obtained her PhD under the supervision of Dr. Uta Paszkowski at the universities of Geneva and Lausanne. She moved from Lausanne to LMU in December 2011.

For more information on Caroline Gutjahr’s work, see:

 

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Privatdozent Dr. Sebastian Kobold is an attending physician and head of the research group Immunopharmacology in the Division of Clinical Pharmacology at the University hospital of the LMU. His main research interest lays in the interactions of malignant cells with components of the immune system, and in application of immunotherapeutic approaches for the treatment of solid tumors, including tumors of the pancreas. His goal is to develop innovative ways of directing so-called T cells to specifically attack and eliminate tumor cells through specific genetic modifications in these T cells.

In his ERC project, entitled ARMOR-T, he intends to equip T cells for the fight against tumors in two ways. The idea is to use genetic engineering to force T cells to express a panel of previously uncharacterized receptor proteins, that he has developed, while relieving suppression of T cell responses. Using this combinatorial approach, he aims at enhancing the specificity and efficacy of immune responses directed against tumor cells, thereby providing a broader basis for effective immunotherapy of tumors. The project will focus on malignancies of the pancreas, but the findings should in principle be applicable to other forms of cancer.

Upon completion of his medical studies, Sebastian Kobold began his clinical training at the Department of Hematology and Oncology at the University Medical Center in Hamburg-Eppendorf in 2008, before moving to the Department of Medicine IV at the university hospital of the LMU in 2010. There, in parallel to his clinical training, he was able to establish an experimental research group in the Division of Clinical Pharmacology. In 2013, he was a Visiting Scientist at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, where he utilized his knowledge of tumor immunology to develop novel therapeutic antibodies. In 2014, he completed his Habilitation at the Faculty of Medicine at LMU.

 

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Prof. Dr. Kai Papenfort was appointed Professor of Microbiology at the Faculty of Biology of the LMU in September 2015. His work centers on the genetic mechanisms that enable bacterial pathogens to adapt to diverse ecological niches, and their relevance to pathogenesis.

In his ERC project, Papenfort plans to study the workings of a particular signaling pathway that permits members of bacterial populations to coordinate their behavior. In an earlier study, he had shown that, in Vibrio cholerae (the pathogen

causing cholera disease), this signal relay is activated by the chemical compound DPO (3,5-dimethylpyrazin-2-ol). He will now analyze the role of DPO in the interaction between the bacteria and their hosts, with the aim of developing a detailed model of bacterial communication in the context of infection. Such a model could potentially uncover new targets for the development of novel therapeutic agents.

Kai Papenfort studied at the University of Marburg and the MPI for Terrestrial Microbiology, graduating in 2005. He did his doctoral thesis at the MPI for Infection Biology, and obtained his PhD at Berlin’s Humboldt University. Following a stint as a postdoc at the Institute of Infection Biology of Würzburg University, he worked as post-doctoral fellow in the Human Frontiers Science Program at Princeton University, before taking up his present position in Munich.

 

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Dr. Johannes Stigler is a physicist, and the primary goal of his research is to elucidate the nature of the molecular interactions between proteins and DNA that enable genetic information to be securely stored and read out under the appropriate circumstances.

Stigler‘s ERC project is designed to characterize the complex molecular mechanisms responsible for the higher-order structure of chromosomes in which most of the DNA is packed in a highly condensed form, which is based on its binding to protein complexes made up of so-called histones. Recent work has shown that each chromosome is also dynamically folded into long loops which bring distant sites into close proximity. In order to shed light on the nucleic acid/protein interactions responsible for this level of spatial organization, Stigler plans to study them at the single-molecule level with the help of state-of-the-art imaging techniques.

Johannes Stigler studied Physics in Munich and Lund, and did his PhD thesis in Kenneth Dawson’s group at the Centre for BioNano Interactions at University College Dublin. He then joined Professor Matthias Rief’s Molecular Biophysics Group in the Physics Department at the Technical University of Munich (TUM). Before moving to LMU, Stigler was a Feodor Lynen Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation at Columbia University in New York City, where he worked with Professors Julio Fernandez and Eric C. Greene.

 

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Dr. Alexander Urban joined the Department of Photonics and Optoelectronics at LMU’s Faculty of Physics in 2014 as a group leader. His research group studies the optical and electrical properties of nanocrystals, focusing in particular on perovskites, which have shown great promise for use in solar cells, light-emitting diodes and lasers, and on carbon-based and plasmonic nanoparticles.

His ERC project, entitled PINNACLE, focuses on lead halide-based perovskites, with a view to opening up new optoelectronic applications for this intriguing class of materials. The basic idea is to use a new method for the synthesis of perovskite nanocrystals that would improve their stability, and allow their optical, electrical and photonic properties to be more easily determined and tuned for specific applications. Urban hopes that his novel nanocrystals will eventually find use in LEDs and lasers.

Alexander Urban studied Physics at Karlsruhe University (TH) and at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. He obtained his PhD at LMU in 2010 with a thesis on the Optothermal Manipulation of Phospholipid Membranes with Gold Nanoparticles. From 2011 until 2014 he worked as a postdoctoral researcher at Rice University in Houston (Texas), before moving back to LMU.

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