European Research Council
Four ERC Advanced Grants at LMU
The European Research Council has awarded four of its coveted Advanced Grants to researchers at LMU. The projects selected deal with topics ranging from the emergence of large-scale structures in the cosmos to the origins of pandemics.
Projects submitted by Professor Roland Beckmann, Dr. Klaus Dolag, Professor Gregg Mitman, and Dr. Silke Robatzek, in response to the latest ERC call for proposals from established researchers, have been selected for funding. Each of the awardees has received an Advanced Investigator Grant. Both Roland Beckmann and Silke Robatzek have already successfully applied for an ERC grant previously.
ERC Advanced Investigator Grants are each worth up to 2.5 million (in exceptional cases as much as 3.5 million) euros over 5 years, and are intended for established researchers in all disciplines who wish to undertake highly ambitious and innovative projects that promise to break new ground in their respective fields.
Structural biologist Roland Beckmann, Professor of Biochemistry at LMU‘s Gene Center, is a specialist in the field of cryo-electron microscopy. This technique permits the three-dimensional configuration of biomolecular complexes to be determined at atomic scales. Beckmann’s major interest is in the structure and function of ribosomes – the subcellular organelles responsible for the synthesis of proteins. By visualizing the fragile architecture of these molecular machines, it is possible to trace the conformational changes that mediate the various steps involved in the production of proteins.
The goal of his new ERC project is to understand how the ribosomes in human cells are put together. This is a very complicated process. Ribosomes are made up of many individual components, and their construction requires the intervention of over 200 biogenesis factors. The latter ensure that these components are correctly folded and inserted into the growing organelle in the right order. A better understanding of the assembly process is vital, since errors in their assembly can lead to a wide range of serious diseases, including skeletal abnormalities and a predisposition to develop tumors. Up to now, ribosomal biogenesis has predominantly been studied in simple organisms such as baker’s yeast, whose ribosomes differ in a number of important respects from those of mammals. Beckmann’s aim is to compile a complete catalog of the structural entities required for ribosomal biogenesis in humans, and to characterize their individual roles in the process. In addition, he plans to clarify how the normal assembly process is disrupted in various disease models. “The insights gained during the project will greatly enhance our knowledge of ribosomal biogenesis in human cells, and help us gain a better understanding of ribosome-associated disorders,” he says.
Roland Beckmann studied Biochemistry at the Free University of Berlin, obtaining his PhD in 1995. Following a spell at Rockefeller University in New York, he returned to Berlin to assume the leadership of a research group (financed by the Volkswagen Foundation) in the Charité Hospital, which is part of the Humboldt University. He was appointed to his present position at LMU in 2006.
Klaus Dolag is an astrophysicist, a specialist in computer-assisted cosmology, and Head of the Computational Center for Particle and Astrophysics in the Munich-based Cluster of Excellence “ORIGINS”. Throughout his scientific career, Dolag has focused on simulating the processes that gave rise to the large-scale structures that characterize the observable Universe, and has developed completely new models to study their evolution. For example, he created the first simulation that explicitly incorporated the contribution of magnetic fields to the formation of galaxy clusters.
In his ERC project (acronym ‘COMPLEX’) he plans to refine his simulation models still further. In essence, his goal is to successfully combine the essential features of models that were developed to capture the evolution of structure on very different scales. This would enable simulations to trace the formation of very large-scale structures such as galaxy clusters, while at the same time taking processes that act on much smaller length scales – such the physics of plasmas – into account. This approach aims at identifying the key processes responsible for determining the detailed composition of largest known structures in the Universe. Dolag will use his ERC Advanced Grant to assemble a team of researchers who will investigate these issues in detail numerically with the aid of newly designed computer-based models.
Klaus Dolag obtained his PhD in 2000 for work done at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching. He joined the Department of Computational Astrophysics at LMU in 2010, and completed his Habilitation in 2012. Years of experience in the development of numerical algorithms and codes have enabled him to make pioneering contributions to complex simulations of the evolution of structure in the cosmos, including the most detailed and data-intensive hydrodynamic simulation of cosmic evolution ever undertaken – Magneticum Pathfinder. As a leading member of the International Planck Collaboration, he has shared several important prizes, including the 2018 Gruber Cosmology Prize.
In light of the global emergency we are now experiencing, one of the successful projects, which bears the acronym VIRHIST, could hardly be more timely. But by taking a long-term historical view, it transcends the current coronavirus crisis. Its full title, “Bloodborne: Hot Zones, Disease Ecologies, and the Changing Landscape of Environment and Health in West Africa“, reveals that the study will examine the relationships between environmental change and the emergence of new threats to public health from multiple perspectives. Taking West Africa as his example, Gregg Mitman, a medical and environmental historian, will explore the ecological, economic, political and social forces that have transformed certain regions of the world into profitable reserves for the intensive exploitation of valuable natural resources. Thanks to their biodiversity, these areas have also become attractive sources of material for biomedical research – and hotspots for the emergence of novel infectious diseases that have the potential to spread rapidly across continents.
Mitman’s project sets out to elucidate how the economic interests of the Western world led to new insights into the ecology of infectious diseases, while at the same time disrupting the interrelationships between the environment and it’s flora and fauna in ways that favored the emergence of new pathogens. One example of this phenomenon concerns the activities of the American tire company Firestone in Liberia. In the early 1920s, the company began to establish large-scale rubber plantations there, which not only radically altered the landscape and ecology of the country, but also its social structure. In 1926, Firestone invited a team of scientists from Harvard to undertake an expedition to collect biological and medical data in Liberia, with the aim of learning more about tropical diseases. The researchers collected samples of blood and urine, as well as parasites and viruses. In an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), Mitman wrote: ““Such materials were the stuff of Nobel Prizes, professional prestige and fame, and medical breakthroughs that benefited people throughout the world.” One of these breakthroughs led to a vaccine against yellow fever. Mitman’s paper, which appeared during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, discusses ‘the ecology of fear’: the fear experienced by those immediately threatened by the Ebola virus – and the fear felt by the many others who were afraid that it would become a global pandemic.
Gregg Mitman is Vilas Research and William Coleman Professor of History, Medical History, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, USA. He is not only the author of prize-winning books but also a film-maker. His latest documentaries, The Land Beneath our Feet and In the Shadow of Ebola were filmed in Liberia. He has been a research fellow at Harvard University, Princeton University and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, among other institutions. Mitman is an Affiliated Professor and Researcher-in-Residence at the Rachel Carson Center for Environmental History (RCC) at LMU. His successful application for an Advanced Grant was prepared and submitted under the aegis of LMU. Mitman will run the project at the RCC.
Cell biologist and geneticist Silke Robatzek is a Research Group Leader at the Faculty of Biology of LMU. Her work centers on understanding how the plant immune system provides protection against pathogens. More specifically, she is interested in how pathogens activate – and suppress – the mechanisms that alert the host plant to the presence of invasive organisms. With her results, she wants to contribute to breeding resistant crops and thus saving pesticides in the future.
In her new ERC project, Robatzek will study the bacterial pathogen Xylella fastidiosa to understand how a versatile ‘generalist’ is capable of successfully infecting a wide range of plant species. The bacterium is transmitted by insects that feed on plant sap, which allows it to replicate in the plant vasculature. The resulting blockage of xylem vessels can ultimately lead to desiccation and the death of the infected plant. The spectrum of plants that are susceptible to X. fastidiosa comprises over 300 plant species. Moreover, the bacterium continues to infect new hosts in Europe, where it has become a serious threat to the commercial production of olive oil. Robatzek believes that the ability to infect multiple host plants could be explained by a general virulence strategy. To test this idea, she will systematically analyze the bacterial and plant factors that are involved in the development of the disease caused by X. fastidiosa. In this way, she wants to better understand what makes the host plant vulnerable and which immune receptors control infection. “In the long term, our goal is to assist the plant’s immune system through the targeted activation of immune receptors and thus fight the disease", Robatzek explains. “In addition, our results could pave the way to the development of similar strategies against other vascular pathogens.”
Silke Robatzek studied Biology at Göttingen University, and obtained her doctorate in natural sciences for work performed at the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research (MPIZ) in Cologne. She subsequently held positions at the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research (Novartis) in Basel (Switzerland) and in the Botanical Institute of Basel University. In 2005 she returned to the MPIZ to lead an independent research group before joining The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich (UK), where she worked in a similar capacity. In 2018 Robatzek moved to the Biocenter at LMU, and her research is now supported by a Heisenberg Fellowship from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG).
Professor Magdalena Götz has also been awarded an Advanced Grant for a project entitled “Novel Mechanisms of Neurogenesis - from Centrosome to Engineering Migration” (acronym: NeuroCentro). The proposal was prepared and submitted under the aegis of the Helmholtz Zentrum München. Professor Götz is a Director of the Institute of Stem-Cell Research at the Center and holds the Chair of Physiological Genomics at LMU.
In the project “Biomedical Applications of Radioactive Ion Beams”, funded by an ERC Advanced Grant, researchers based at the GSI Helmholtzzentrum für Schwerionenforschung in Darmstadt (PI Professor Marco Durante) plan to assess the effectiveness of radioactive ion beams for simultaneous treatment and beam visualization of solid tumors. Professor Katia Parodi, who holds the Chair of Medical Physics at the LMU Faculty of Physics, will contribute to the project as Associated Partner, leading the development of a novel combined detector which utilizes prompt and delayed photon emissions produced during treatment to visualize the beam delivery for unprecedented targeting accuracy.