Five ERC Starting Grants Go to Universität Heidelberg

Five ERC Starting Grants, highly endowed grants of the European Research Council (ERC), have been allocated to Ruperto Carola in the latest approval round. They go to Junior Professor Dr Daniela Duarte Campos, Kerstin Göpfrich and Dr Stefan Pfeffer, all scientists at the Center for Molecular Biology of Heidelberg University (ZMBH). An ERC Starting Grant has also been awarded to Dr Victoria Ingham from the Medical Faculty Heidelberg, who does malaria research with her research group at the Heidelberg University Hospital. Another grant goes to a research project led by Dr Kathryn Kreckel, based at the Centre for Astronomy of Heidelberg University. The ERC is making a total of approx. 7.5 million euros available for the research projects - 1.5 million euros for each ERC Starting Grant. The funding period covers five years.

Finding a new biotechnological procedure to treat heart failure is the aim of the project "LIGHTHEART - Surgical optogenetic bioprinting of engineered cardiac muscle" led by Daniela Duarte Campos. To achieve this, she will combine bioprinting - new cellular structures are fabricated from body cells and then "printed" - with optogenetics. Using this technology, cellular structures can be assembled with the aid of light. LIGHTHEART is based on the development of an innovative surgical bioprinting tool for fabricating, directly at the heart, muscle tissue engineered from stem cells and assembled under the influence of light. It is intended to supplement traditional transplantation medicine and open new horizons for patients on the waiting list for a heart transplant, Prof. Duarte Campos explains. With her ZMBH junior research group she is also involved in the Excellence Cluster "3D Matter Made to Order" (3DMM2O), a joint initiative of Heidelberg University and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. 

The ERC project "ENSYNC - From engineering to evolution of synthetic cells with RNA origami" led by Kerstin Göpfrich deals with the evolution of artificial cells. The aim of the research project is to create a prototype of a synthetic cell encompassing a fundamental characteristic of life - the ability to evolve. In the context of ENSYNC, Prof. Göpfrich wants to develop a new molecular hardware based on DNA and RNA origami, i.e. the "art of folding" macromolecules in the nano world, which equip synthetic vesicles with cellular functionality. With their ability to evolve, the functionality of the vesicles and their hardware can be constantly improved. Step by step, an artificial model cell will emerge whose building blocks, in future, could take on specific tasks in a diseased organism, the scientist explains. On 1 November, she took up a professorship at the Center for Molecular Biology of Heidelberg University and continues to lead a research group in the field of biophysical engineering at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research. Kerstin Göpfrich also contributes to the research carried out within the 3DMM2O Cluster of Excellence.

The cellular response to stress is at the heart of the ERC project "RiboStress - Stress-induced structural and organizational adaptations of the cellular translation machinery" led by Stefan Pfeffer. It focuses on the cellular processes for synthesising proteins. If they are perturbed under the influence of stress, nascent but also already folded proteins can be destabilised and deprived of their correct function or even aggregate. In his ERC project RiboStress, Dr Pfeffer intends to structurally elucidate how cells react to stress by remodelling the activity, structure and molecular organisation of ribosomes - the cellular machinery of protein synthesis. To do so he uses a cutting-edge approach to high-resolution three-dimensional imaging, termed cryo-electron tomography, which enables visualisation of ribosomes in their native cellular environment at molecular detail. Dr Pfeffer is a junior research group leader at the Center for Molecular Biology of Heidelberg University.

Innovative methods for fighting malaria are the focus of the ERC project "ReMVeC - How has the rapid scale-up of malaria control in Africa impacted vector competence?" led by Victoria Ingham. Malaria is caused by parasites transmitted to humans when bitten by infected mosquitoes. Insecticides and drugs are the main tools used to fight the infectious disease. Mosquitoes and parasites have, however, developed resistances to them and no longer die as a consequence. In the context of the ReMVeC project, the medical entomologist wants to examine how the different resistances impact the development of the malaria parasites in the mosquito, in order to determine how insecticides and medicines could best be used in regions where malaria is endemic. In addition, Dr Ingham intends to use the stress reaction of mosquitoes to develop new strategies to minimise infection. Dr Ingham heads a German Center for Infection Research junior research group at the Center for Infectious Diseases of Heidelberg University Hospital.

In her ERC project "ISM-METALS - Tracking galaxy evolution with precise and accurate metal abundances in the interstellar medium", Kathryn Kreckel uses heavy elements - referred to as "metals" in astronomy - in the interstellar medium to study fundamental processes of galaxy evolution. The life and death of stars produce metals that enrich the interstellar medium - that is, the gas between the stars within a galaxy - with elements such as carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and sulphur. These, in turn, are important for the next stars to form. With the ISM-METALS project, the astrophysicist wants to achieve high-precision metallicity measurements in areas of star formation in the Milky Way and in more distant galaxies using new optical spectra. This is necessary to improve our understanding of measurements from the James Webb Space Telescope, to learn how metals build up over cosmic time. Dr Kreckel heads an Emmy Noether Junior Research Group at the Institute for Astronomical Computing, which is part of the Centre for Astronomy of Heidelberg University.

With the ERC Starting Grant the European Research Council supports outstanding young scientists from all disciplines who have already produced excellent work and wish to conduct pioneering research as project leaders.