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ERC Grant Success: School scientists awarded €4M in European funding

Projects led by Amy Buck and Steven Spoel have been awarded funding by the European Research Council (ERC) in its latest Consolidator Grant competition for mid-career researchers.

The grants are awarded to outstanding researchers of any nationality and age, with at least seven and up to twelve years of experience after PhD, and a scientific track record showing great promise.

The funding is part of the EU’s current research and innovation programme, Horizon 2020, and worth in total €655 million. 

Research funded by the ERC is expected to lead to advances at the frontiers of knowledge and to set a clear and inspirational target for frontier research across Europe.

Amy Buck

Nematodes inside the mouse intestine
SEM image of Heligmosomoides bakeri in the mouse intestine - Image Credit :Amy Buck & Stephen Mitchell

Dr Amy Buck has been awarded €2 million for her project ‘RNACOM - RNA functions in parasite-host communication in the gut’.

Her project will investigate how nematodes, tiny parasitic worms, re-program gut cells using ribonucleic acids (RNAs) and will develop new tools to control infections by blocking RNA communication.

Nematodes are one of the most diverse and abundant pathogens on earth.

They infect more than a quarter of the world’s human population, most grazing livestock and many plant species, causing huge global health and economic burdens and threats to food security.

To survive in humans and animals, nematodes secrete bioactive molecules including RNAs that suppress their host’s immune responses and alter intestinal cells. 

They directly shuttle their RNAs into host cells using extracellular vesicles – small particles that act as vehicles, transferring materials between cells. 

This project will identify which host genes are targeted by nematode’s own RNAs and how this affects key cell types in the gut that impact health. 

Amy’s team will also develop new methods to block RNA communication, which could lead to the development of new control strategies for nematodes, for which there are currently no vaccines.

It is expected that the research will have wider impacts. For example, human cells also use RNA to communicate with one another and coordinate responses to infection, but it remains a puzzle exactly how they do this.  

Studying how nematodes hijack these mechanisms with their own RNAs may reveal how RNA communication contributes to human disease.  

Funding for this research will enable us to address a really challenging and new area in RNA biology – how RNA can communicate information from one location to another – while bringing new strategies and tools to target an incredibly important, and largely neglected, pathogen. I became interested in this field because I wanted to deliver RNA to cells as an antiviral therapeutic yet a huge obstacle was getting RNA to the right cells in an efficient way. I think parasitic nematodes have figured out how to do this, and we have a lot to learn from them.

Dr Amy BuckReader in the Institute of Immunology & Infection Research

Steven Spoel

Plants treated with the immune hormone salicylic acid
Plants treated with the immune hormone salicylic acid (right) are much more resistant to infection by the bacterial leaf pathogen Pseudomonas syringae than untreated plants (left) - Image Credit: Steven Spoel

Dr Steven Spoel has been awarded €2 million for his project ‘UbRegulate - Dynamic ubiquitin signalling coordinates transcriptional reprogramming in plant immunity’.

His project will investigate how a group of proteins, known as ubiquitin, help protect plants from disease and could lead to new strategies to protect crops and boost food security.

Like humans, plants are continuously threatened by a wide range of diseases caused by bacteria, fungi and viruses.

Food crops often succumb to disease, which severely reduces agricultural yields. This costs global economies billions every year and still renders much of agriculture subsidised.

Current approaches to improve disease resistance in crops are often not environmentally sustainable or fail to provide long-lasting immunity to a wide variety of attackers.

When infected, plants produce the immune hormone salicylic acid - from which the widely used human drug, aspirin is made - to activate their immune system. 

Salicylic acid is responsible for reprogramming the expression of hundreds of immune genes, but how it does so remains largely unknown.

Previous research by Steven’s research group revealed that salicylic acid employs a small protein, known as ubiquitin, to coordinate plant immune responses.

His team will investigate how complex chains of interlinked ubiquitin proteins, of different shapes and sizes, change the activities of plant immune proteins.

Like ourselves, plants are also under threat from infection by diverse microorganisms, but current approaches to prevent disease on food crops are often not sustainable. Remarkably, plants make their own aspirin to fend off attackers, but how this works at a molecular level remains a mystery. Understanding how plant cells utilise ubiquitin to launch immune responses will reveal new strategies for sustainable crop protection.

Dr Steven SpoelHead of Molecular Plant Sciences

Consolidator Grant Impact

ERC Consolidator grants provide long-term funding to support excellent investigators to pursue ground-breaking, high-gain/high-risk research.  

With ERC support, the new 327 grantees will be able to consolidate their teams and have far-reaching impact.

The grantees will carry out their projects at universities, research centres and companies in 23 different countries across Europe, including 50 projects in the United Kingdom.

This funding not only empowers bright minds from across Europe to pursue their most ambitious ideas at a critical stage of their careers, but also helps train the youngest generation of researchers as members of their ERC teams. To prepare for the challenges of tomorrow, Europe must stick to the vision of investing in frontier research, which has proved time and again its crucial added value. That is why so many count on Europe’s leaders to endow the “Excellent Science” pillar of Horizon Europe with the resources essential to strengthen Europe as a whole.

Professor Jean-Pierre BourguignonERC President

Related Links

Amy Buck's Lab

Steven Spoel's lab