Anne L’Huillier

Discovering the secrets of the interaction between light and matter

Frontier research led by ERC grantee Anne L’Huillier has led to progress in the understanding of the dynamics of electrons within atomic systems. In parallel, advances in the field of ultrafast laser technology spun off from her fundamental research have opened up further opportunities in this field – both in terms of scientific application and commercialisation.

The groundbreaking work of Anne L’Huillier, from the Physics Department at Lund University in Sweden, illustrates how fundamental research can work hand-in-hand with technological progress to generate new opportunities. A Swedish-French scientist, L’Huillier and her team made new discoveries in the fundamental understanding of the interaction between light and matter, and developed new laser technology for carrying out such research.

‘This is the beauty of fundamental research’, she says. ‘You don’t know what it will lead to, and there is a chance that you’ll find something completely unexpected or new.’

Taking a fresh look at atomic ionisation processes

L’Huillier’s journey of scientific discovery has been supported by over a decade of ERC funding. Initially, she learnt how to control the generation of light pulses that are 100 attoseconds long (one attosecond is one quintillionth of a second).

An important step was the measurement of the time needed for electrons to ionize after absorption of light. This time is called ‘photoionisation time delay’. By using these ultrashort light pulses, just like a camera flash, scientists were able to better understand the dynamics of electrons within atoms – something that had, until then, proven difficult to achieve. A key contribution of L’Huillier’s work has been to help scientists see the interaction between light and atoms in a different way.

‘I wanted to build on this time delay technique to investigate a range of atomic processes’, explains L’Huillier. ‘I find this fundamental research is so interesting and vital, because it helps us to understand natural processes that happen in everyday life.’

L’Huillier and her team have gone on to apply her research and techniques to ever more complex quantum physics problems. One ambitious plan is to investigate the quantum properties of the electron wave-packets created by the absorption of ultrashort light pulses.

‘This is really going into unknown territory for me’, says L’Huillier. ‘I am outside my comfort zone with this! I know how I will go forward with this research, but I don’t know what I’ll find.’

This is the beauty of fundamental research. You don’t know what it will lead to


From fundamental research to real-world application

All of this ERC-backed work has of course not been carried out in a vacuum. Huge technological progress has been made within the ultrafast science field over the last decade. This has enabled L’Huillier and her team to accomplish more as the projects have advanced. ‘Fundamental research and technological progress go together’, she says. ‘This has really been the case for our work.’

Indeed, a key output of her work has been the development of an ultrashort light source that can be used for advanced studying of atoms in a gas phase or solid state. Another beamline, built in Lund, served as a prototype for an instrument of the Extreme Light Infrastructure Attosecond Light Pulse Source (ELI-ALPS) in Hungary. This laser institute supplies scientists worldwide with high-power, short-pulse lasers and secondary light sources, enabling them to investigate the interaction between light and matter, among other applications.

L’Huillier’s work has created new opportunities across Europe. ‘It is very important to have top-notch lasers for the research we do and reliable techniques to measure and control their performances’, she explains. ‘A bright PhD student in my group had this very smart idea, and this led to a patent and a spin-off company, based in Portugal.’

‘I have really enjoyed doing this work’, she continues. ‘ERC funding gives a university like ours the means to carry out this sort of research, which is technologically demanding. In addition, our Proof of Concept projects enabled us to build prototypes, creating a bridge towards the commercial side.’ L’Huillier and her team are currently looking into applying for another ERC Proof of Concept grant to further exploit the impressive results of this remarkable decade of work in ultrafast science.


ERC_research · How the ERC transformed science - interview with Anne L’Huillier


About the researcher

Anne L’Huillier, a Swedish-French atomic physicist, is Professor at Lund University. She was awarded the EPS-QEOD Quantum Electronics Prize for fundamental aspects from the European Physical Society in 2019, and the L’Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science in 2011, among many other accolades. She won ERC Advanced Grants in 2008, 2013 and 2019, as well as ERC Proof of Concept grants in 2013 and 2017.


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Stefania Milan

Bursting the social media bubble with open-source software

Now, more than ever, many of our interactions take place online. ERC grantee Stefania Milan has performed innovative, quantitative research on personalisation algorithms, addressing what they are and how they influence user behaviour and perceptions on social media. Her open-source software is a promising, user-friendly tool for building digital literacy among researchers, civil society advocates and citizens at large.

When we use social media, we want to believe that we are in control of the ideas and information we share within our network. Yet we cannot ignore the filter bubbles that emerge on online platforms, which can breed political and social polarisation.

This opaque correlation between user preferences and the filtering of information on social media platforms, caught the attention of Stefania Milan, Associate Professor of New Media & Digital Cultures at the University of Amsterdam.

‘We wanted to get people thinking about their information diet’, she says. ‘We are concerned with what we eat, but we aren’t as concerned about what we consume in terms of information, especially in the context of social media.’

Demystifying information technology

For Milan, ERC support was critical in shaping her research trajectory, starting in 2015 with a project on citizenry in the age of Big Data. In this context, she noticed a lack of independent, quantitative research on micro-targeting, or ‘how our world view is influenced by content personalisation as we browse the internet’.

In 2018, thanks to additional ERC funding, Milan assembled a cadre of 15 collaborators, including: Claudio Agosti, the lead software developer; Davide Beraldo, a data analyst; and Jeroen de Vos, a social media analyst. ‘We were also able to train and engage developers, junior scholars and investigators from domains beyond computer science such as sociology and political science’, she says.

The objective was to develop prototype software that could be downloaded by users as a browser extension. Once installed, all the public posts on a user’s timeline would be collected, anonymised and analysed via secure servers. Milan’s interdisciplinary team had the capacity to not only develop the software but also undertake novel data-driven analysis to understand how user behaviour is influenced by personalisation algorithms.

We were also able to train and engage developers, junior scholars and investigators from domains beyond computer science

Empowering digital citizens

By 2020, Milan and her team had successfully developed open-source software to collect data on the workings of personalisation algorithms on Facebook (; YouTube (; and Amazon (

Although the ERC funding concluded in 2020, the software they developed lives on. ‘Our approach is scalable and reusable to study personalisation on many different social media platforms’, Milan explains. Most recently, in the context of the Dutch election cycle (mid-March 2021), the software was used to monitor Facebook and determine the impact of personalisation algorithms on political preferences. ‘We even partnered up with a national newspaper, among other media outlets, to investigate the issue.’

ERC support has given Milan and her team a tool and a platform to speak directly with the general public about personalisation algorithms, what they are, and how they work on different social media platforms. Looking ahead, she wants to continue to empower users to take ownership of the information they share and receive, enabling them to truly become ‘digital citizens’.

ERC_research · How the ERC transformed science - interview with Stefania Milan

About the researcher

Stefania Milan is an associate professor of New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam. She is fascinated by the interplay between technologies and society. She has published research in a variety of fields, including critical data studies, political sociology, and science and technology studies. Born in Italy, she studied at the University of Padova and in 2009, she obtained a PhD in Political and Social Sciences from the European University Institute in Italy. She won an ERC Starting Grant in 2014 and an ERC Proof of Concept in 2018.

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Uğur Şahin

Optimising the transformative potential of mRNA for human health

ERC grantee Uğur Şahin is driving a new generation of mRNA cancer vaccines. His interdisciplinary team is using cutting-edge technology to develop vaccines that enhance immune responses to tumour mutations in individual cancer patients. This frontier research is not only changing the course of personalised cancer treatment, but also stimulating a general acceptance of mRNA as an immunotherapy solution with high potential in terms of vaccines against infectious diseases such as COVID-19.

Cancer cells are genetically diverse and adaptable, which means that every cancer – down to the tumour cell – is different. This heterogeneity poses a significant challenge when it comes to developing effective treatment for individual patients.

Two decades ago, Uğur Şahin, an oncologist and immunologist at the University Medical Center of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Germany, asked a career-launching question: ‘Is it possible to develop treatments that are as unique as cancer patients are?’

In 2017, Şahin won an ERC grant to optimise the feasibility of novel messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccines against cancer, using data-analysis technology to track tumours, tumour-cell resistance and predict mutations in cancer patients. RNA-based vaccines – which deliver genetic ‘instructions’ for making ‘enemy’ proteins to our cells, so that our bodies can launch an immune response – are central to a burgeoning approach to immunotherapy, with implications for developing personalised vaccines against cancer and other diseases (most recently, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic).

Solid foundations for groundbreaking science

Şahin has dedicated over 20 years to researching the molecular composition and manipulation of mRNA. By 2010, he had assembled a team to work on mRNA vaccines at Translational Oncology at the University Medical Center of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (TRON).

Şahin’s team is comprised of functional units, covering different domains, including immunology and bioinformatics, and methodologies such as cloning and microscopy. ‘This collaborative dynamic has allowed us to deepen our understanding of how mRNA works – from A to Z’, explains Mustafa Diken, Deputy Director of TRON’s Immunotherapy Development Center, and a key member of Şahin’s team.

With the ERC grant, Şahin has been able to step up the design, development and clinical testing of mRNA vaccines for cancer. ‘Under Şahin’s direction, this foundational mRNA knowledge is being optimised to fully exploit the full potential of such vaccinations’, says Diken.

We started to make a vaccine for the individual but ended up making one for mankind

Mustafa Diken, Martin Löwer

From curiosity to concrete results

Şahin and his team cannot understate the importance of freedom and curiosity in breeding new knowledge and ideas. ‘Groundbreaking science takes time, investment and cross fertilisation’, says Şahin.

‘You need partners who believe in your crazy ideas and support your research’, adds Martin Löwer, Deputy Director of the Biomarker Development Center at TRON and another principal figure within Şahin’s research team. As Löwer notes, 15 years ago mRNA would have been an unlikely contender for immunotherapy. ‘Through our decades-long work, including the ERC grant in the last couple of years, we paved the way for the acceptance of mRNA technology as a drug.’

With ERC support projected through to 2023, Şahin’s team continues, in collaboration with academic and industry partners, to push the clinical translation of their mRNA vaccine research. For Diken, ‘the know-how being generated by our project can be employed to design vaccines for specific patients.’ Within this framework, Löwer adds: ‘This opens up the ability to treat more cancer patients.’

Among other things, the ERC grant enabled Şahin’s team to develop an open-source AI software with an algorithm that tracks and predicts tumour mutations and new antigens. The software is now being used by other research teams to sequence, track and, possibly, predict new variants of COVID-19.

‘It’s a great side-effect, which we couldn’t have predicted when we started’, says Löwer, adding that project learnings could be very beneficial in tackling the COVID-19 virus mutations and the development of the next generation of vaccines.

Opening new avenues through frontier research

The events of 2020 demonstrated how the freedom offered to scientists through frontier research can open entirely unanticipated avenues of exploration. Looking at his body of research in the wake of a global pandemic, Şahin was strategically placed to redirect his expertise towards the rapid design and development of the BioNTech/Pfizer mRNA vaccine against COVID-19.

The remarkable speed at which this COVID-19 vaccine was developed was made possible thanks, in part, to Şahin’s decades of research into the effectiveness of mRNA within the field of immunology. For Şahin, this was an unexpected outcome of his work. ‘We started to make a vaccine for the individual,’ he comments. ‘But ended up making one for mankind’.

ERC_research · How the ERC transformed science - interview with Mustafa Diken

About the researcher

Uğur Şahin is a professor of experimental oncology at the University Medical Center of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, CEO of the company BioNTech, and Executive Scientific Advisor at the independent, non-profit company, TRON. His research has been supported by various parts of the EU Framework Programmes for Research and Innovation, including an Advanced Grant from the ERC in 2017. He also received financing from the European Investment Bank in 2020 in relation to BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine trials.

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Michael Grätzel

Enabling the green transition with high-performing solar cells

In the global effort to combat climate change, solar power can help cut emissions and provide an alternative to fossil fuels. ERC grantee Michael Grätzel is pioneering a new generation of photovoltaic solar technologies that are highly reliable and cost effective. The record-breaking performance of his solar cells has real-world applications within sustainable electronics.

Michael Grätzel is pushing the limits of solar energy technology at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland, where he is a professor and the director of the Laboratory of Photonics and Interfaces. In 2012, Grätzel won an ERC grant to improve the efficiency of solar cell devices to generate electricity from sunlight. As part of it, he also advanced a new system for generating fuels, such as hydrogen, from sunlight and water.

‘The inspiration for my project actually came from observing nature’, he says. ‘We learned from the way that green leaves harvest sunlight during natural photosynthesis.’ He did not want to replicate all the complexities of the natural system, but rather focused on the primary process during which chlorophyll, the natural dye, generates electric charges from sunlight, so that he could mimic the reaction in an efficient and, ultimately, more reliable way.

New generation of solar power

At the start of ERC funding, Grätzel and his lab were testing two types of solar cell structures comprised of different chemical compounds: the dye-sensitised cell (DSC) and the perovskite solar cell (PSC). In fact, Grätzel had previously invented the DSC in 1991, which would become the ‘mother’ of the PSC in 2009.

Grätzel brought in a mix of Swiss and international researchers to develop the dye molecules and perform the requisite ‘molecular tailoring’ in order to produce a more mature DSC technology. For the PSC, he wanted to advance new compositions and architectures, with the goal of developing solar cell devices that would be highly efficient, stable and low-cost.

‘Without ERC support, we would not have had the freedom or the capacity to do this creative research’, he says.

Without ERC support, we would not have had the freedom or the capacity to do this creative research

Breaking energy conversion records

Thanks in part to Grätzel’s work, the efficiency of the PSC has increased from 3% in 2009 to almost 26% today. Over the last 8-9 years, these breakthroughs in the research have been documented in over 18,000 published papers.

In retrospect, Grätzel emphasises the fact that ERC support came at a critical time – namely in the wake of the 2007-2008 global financial crisis. The support meant that ‘we were much stronger in terms of competitiveness and received advice on how to transition our inventions to practical applications’, he says. The technology that they developed resulted in over 50 patents.

‘Our DSC is now considered the gold standard for ambient light harvesting’, he adds. It can be found in e-readers, headphones, smartphones and other electronic devices marketed as ‘eternal electronics’; solar-powered devices that do not require battery replacements. While the commercial deployment of PSCs is still in its infancy, initial findings suggest it may enable even higher electrical power conversion efficiency rates (in tandem configurations possibly as high as 30%).

A durable electronic future

With the ERC grant, Grätzel sought to contribute to the solar cell technology currently on the market. In addition to this, he was also able to put forth a new generation of molecular solar cell devices that have reached commercial maturity. He is continuing to work on improving these devices and on exploring the complex features of PSCs at the level of fundamental research to prepare for their large-scale deployment in the future.

‘We need more photovoltaic options to stop climate change’, he says. ‘That’s where I think our devices can provide support to the existing photovoltaic technologies.’

Grätzel is not just imaging a new wave of photovoltaic technologies. ‘In my office, I have a photovoltaic glass panel that can contribute electricity for powering my desktop computer. It collects light from all angles!’

ERC_research · How the ERC transformed science - interview with Michael Grätzel

About the researcher

Michael Grätzel is a chemist and a founding father of the molecular photovoltaics field. He has been a professor for around 45 years at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland, where he is also Director of the Laboratory of Photonics and Interfaces. He is the author of over 1,500 publications, two books and named as the inventor or co-inventor in over 80 patents. He has received a Doctor honoris causa from 11 universities in different countries, including in Sweden, Italy, France, Belgium, The Netherlands as well as China and Singapore. He has received numerous honours and awards, including the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards in Basic Science, the Millennium Technology Grand Prize, Global Energy Prize, the King Faisal International Science Prize, the Albert Einstein World Award of Science, and the Balzan Prize. He is a member of the German Academy of Science (Leopoldina) and of several other learned societies. He received an ERC Advanced Grant in 2012.

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Marileen Dogterom, Anna Akhmanova

Charting the blueprints for future disease treatments through cell self-organisation

Prize-winning ERC grantees Anna Akhmanova and Marileen Dogterom combined cutting-edge research in the fields of biophysics and biology to achieve a better understanding of how cells self-organise. Their findings could have far-reaching implications for our ability to manipulate cells and treat diseases such as cancer.

In recent years, researchers have made good progress in understanding the individual components of the cytoskeleton, the network of protein filaments that makes up a key part of the structure of our cells. However, it is still unclear as to how exactly these complex cellular systems are built from the bottom up. If this could be understood, it could open a new chapter in the manipulation of cells, regenerative medicine, and the treatment of diseases like cancer.

‘Think of how a building is made up of different parts, like bricks and glass’, explains Anna Akhmanova, Professor of Cell Biology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. ‘A cell is similar. However, while there is an architect to design a building, there are no plans drawn up for cells. Understanding how this process of self-organisation works is the grand challenge of modern biology.’

Combined skills

Backed by an ERC Synergy grant, which is designed to foster collaboration, Akhmanova and Marileen Dogterom, Chair of the Department of Bio-Nanoscience at Technical University Delft in the Netherlands, set out to pool their expertise to tackle the issue together. In practice, this has meant looking at the physical and chemical properties of cell structure, as well as more globally at how cell biology translates into functionality.

‘The ERC Synergy grant enabled us to combine our skills and to think bigger’, says Dogterom.

Together, the grantees focused their work on microtubules – the thin, long tubes found in every cell which form part of the cytoskeleton. Microtubules separate chromosomes during cell division and help to control cell shape. ‘We knew that microtubules help cells to organise themselves, just like you need streets to organise and run a city’, says Akhmanova.

The grant also enabled the two researchers to bring other collaborators with specific expertise on board. They then set about trying to reconstitute in vitro these complex microtubule networks, to work out how these systems are built. The success of this approach enabled Akhmanova and Dogterom to then compare ‘what we had built in vitro with what actually happens in cells in vivo.’

Critically, the project also looked at specific behaviours such as microtubule growth, as well as processes relevant to how cancer cells move around the body. ‘We were able to show that the ability of cancer cells to grow long microtubules is important to their movement’, says Akhmanova. ‘This was one of the ways we were able to connect theory with scientific evidence.’

The ERC Synergy grant enabled us to combine our skills and to think bigger

Understanding cell behaviour

This transformative research had not been done before on such a large scale. The ecosystem of ERC support also enabled Akhmanova and Dogterom to pioneer new techniques, such as the use of light, to try and control cell behaviour.

‘What is interesting about the cytoskeleton is that if the same building blocks are organised differently, you end up with a different function’, explains Dogterom. ‘So how can you change cell behaviour? This is the dot on the horizon where we want to get to.’

Their research has already helped to advance the building of complex biological systems outside the cell, an area of research in which Europe is becoming a leader. The project has helped to strengthen the European Synthetic Cell Initiative, which brings together researchers dedicated to better understanding cellular behaviour by reconstituting cellular functions in vitro.

Significantly, the pair won the Netherlands’ prestigious NWO Spinoza Award – the highest award in Dutch science – in 2018 for their outstanding and groundbreaking work. Both have committed to using the award funds to continue their collaborative work. 'The beauty of this ERC Synergy grant is that it enabled us to really tackle big issues’, says Dogterom. ‘We won’t be stopping here.’

ERC_research · How the ERC transformed science - interview with Anna Akhmanova

About the researchers

Anna Akhmanova is Professor of Cell Biology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. After studying biology, cell biology and biochemistry at Moscow State University, Akhmanova completed her PhD in the Netherlands at Radboud University Nijmegen (RU). In 2011, she took up her post leading the Division of Cell Biology at Utrecht University.

Marileen Dogterom is Professor and Department Chair of Bionanoscience within the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. In 1994, Dogterom completed her PhD at the University of Paris-Sud, France, having conducted part of the research at Princeton University, USA. In 2014, she took up her current post at the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience.

Together, the two scientists were awarded an ERC Synergy grant in 2013.

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Tracy Kivell

Unearthing the secrets of human evolution through research into fossilised hands

The groundbreaking analysis of a 2-million-year-old fossilised hand has enabled ERC grantee Tracy Kivell to expand our understanding of how humans evolved. Novel techniques developed through her project now promise to shed even more light on the incredibly complex internal structure of bone as a material.

Like many paleoanthropologists, Tracy Kivell, a professor at the University of Kent, UK, was excited to learn about the discovery of two unusual skeletons in a South African cave in 2008. The nearly 2-million-year-old bones belonged to Australopithecus sediba, an extinct species of ape that could be a potential human ancestor.

‘What really grabbed my attention was the fact that there was this beautiful fossilised lower arm bone going into rock’, explains Kivell. ‘I remember thinking that if there is a hand at the end of that arm, I would really like to work on that! And of course, there was. This was really a dream come true for a paleoanthropologist interested in hands.’

At the time, Kivell was conducting research on primate locomotion and biomechanics, and was becoming increasingly interested in studying the internal structure of bone. She saw an ERC grant as the perfect means of combining these interests. ‘What this grant enabled me to do was to take a really multidisciplinary approach to reconstructing behaviour from the past’, she explains.

This grant enabled me to take a really multidisciplinary approach

Cutting-edge techniques

To investigate internal bone structure, it is necessary to first scan the fossils using 3D x-rays to understand what is contained within. Separating this fossilised bone from the surrounding rock, however, has always been more of a challenge. Bone tends to be a different density to the rock, so scientists have typically had to separate the fossilised bone manually, which is a time-consuming process. Christopher Dunmore, who completed his PhD with Kivell at the University of Kent and played a critical role in the research, wanted to develop a more precise and faster method of identifying bone.

‘We developed a machine learning algorithm that enables a computer to automatically discern densities that indicate rock from those indicating fossil bone’, he explains. ‘All you are left with in the 3D x-ray is bone, including its delicate internal structure.’ The technique, which was applied to the A. sediba skeleton, is now freely available for anyone to use.

Another key aspect of the project was its study of living humans and other apes. They investigated the pressures experienced by ape hands when hanging from trees or when walking on knuckles, as well as how humans use stone tools to cut meat or manipulate objects.

‘All this information helped us to create realistic virtual models to represent how hand bones are used for different behaviours’, says Kivell. ‘This had not been done before.’

The role of hands

The depth and breadth of this research enabled Kivell’s project team to make some impressive discoveries. For example, the project was able to demonstrate that some fossil human species still used their hands for climbing, while at the same time being capable of complex tool use.

‘Often, we find fossils that look maybe halfway between human and ape’, says Dunmore. ‘We were able to show that the A. sediba fossil was different. It offered extremes. While the hands were used for swinging through branches, the thumb-use was distinctly human-like.’

These discoveries have significant implications for our understanding of human evolution. They show for example that primate hands could have evolved in numerous different ways, not necessarily in the linear manner that many typically might imagine.

‘The new fossils have revealed combinations of anatomy that could never have been predicted from just looking at humans or apes’, adds Kivell. ‘The key was being able to interpret behaviour from fossils in a more comparative and robust way.’

Another legacy of the project has been an abiding appreciation of just how complex internal bone structure is. ‘I am really interested to focus in the future on how high impact behaviours, like running or climbing, are reflected in bone, to assess the adaptability of bone structure’, says Kivell.


ERC_research · How the ERC transformed science - interview with Tracy Kivell


About the researcher

Tracy Kivell is a paleoanthropologist and Professor of Biological Anthropology at the University of Kent, UK. She obtained her PhD in 2007 from the University of Toronto, Canada, before teaching human anatomy at Duke University, USA. Between 2009 and 2013, she was a junior researcher in the Department of Human Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany, where she remains an affiliated researcher. She received an ERC Starting Grant in 2013 and is currently a collaborator on an ERC Consolidator Grant awarded in 2018.

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Roberto Navigli

Applying artificial intelligence to transform language learning

The pioneering work of ERC grantee Roberto Navigli has brought computer language learning and translation closer to the level of human comprehension. Not only has this been used to deliver large-scale lexical resources that are used by language learners, universities and organisations across the world, but it could also have important implications for artificial intelligence, robotics and the future of machine translation.

A longstanding dream of many experts working in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) has been to develop machines capable of dialogue and language comprehension, indistinguishable to that of a human. For this, a computer must be able to understand not just the meaning of words, but grasp the context of sentences too.

This is a challenge that Roberto Navigli, Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the Sapienza University of Rome, Italy, has been grappling with for over 20 years.

Putting the problem in context

‘A core difficulty is the ambiguity of words’, he explains. ‘For example, if I say in English, “please call me a taxi”, what exactly am I talking about? For a human, the context should be clear, but a computer might think that I am asking to literally be called “taxi!”’

While humans take for granted that words have specific meanings in specific contexts, this is not the case for machines. Computers need to be able to choose the contextual meaning of a word from a list; a process called ‘word-sense disambiguation.’

A key motivation behind Navigli’s ERC-funded work was to tackle the ambiguity of words and bring computers closer to human-level performance. The project brought together computer science, linguistics and language, as well as AI and robotics.

What made this project especially ambitious was that it sought to tackle word ambiguity in just about every language. ‘ERC funding really lets you go in new directions, and to break new ground’, says Navigli.

Results with everyday application

Navigli’s research represents a benchmark in multilingual translation and computer language comprehension. A huge knowledge database of words and synonyms was developed using sophisticated algorithms, and the ‘BabelNet’ platform was born.

‘BabelNet is an innovative computer dictionary’, explains Navigli. ‘What makes it different is that it represents language as a relationship between concepts. This means that queries are done not by word, but by concept. Related concepts are then linked, like in Wikipedia.’

The platform, which just turned ten years old, contains more than 20 million entries in 500 languages. As a comparison, the English language version of Wikipedia contains just over 6 million articles. The resource is used for translation by more than 1,000 universities around the world. Language learners also make use of BabelNet on a daily basis to find phrases and to disambiguate texts across languages.

‘This also led to the creation of a company, Babelscape, which was something that I never expected’, says Navigli. ‘Without this, it would have been very difficult to make BabelNet sustainable.’

The company now employs around 25 staff and works with several multinational companies. The EU Intellectual Property Office also uses BabelNet in order to interpret trademark applications and ensure compliance across the EU.

ERC funding really lets you go in new directions, and to break new ground

The next leap forward

Thanks to additional ERC funding, Navigli now hopes to make the next conceptual leap to providing semantics for texts that are independent from language. In other words, this would enable a computer to make sense of a text, irrespective of which language the text is written in.

‘If we achieve this, then we will be getting closer and closer to what humans do with language’, explains Navigli. ‘If I read a text in French and want to translate it into English, I don’t aim to translate it word-for-word. Rather, I aim to convey the meaning. This, after all, is what interpreters do, and this is what we are aiming for.’

Potential end uses could include robotics, with machines capable of being instructed in any language. The comprehension of these commands would be independent of the language expressed.

‘This comes back to my original goal, which is about enabling understanding’, says Navigli. ‘The work is a bit like neural networks. Because we cannot “read” a brain, we need to use intermediate representations to explain what a neural network is doing. And this is the same with developing machines capable of dialogue and language comprehension.’

ERC_research · How the ERC transformed science - interview with Roberto Navigli

About the researcher

Roberto Navigli is a computer scientist and language specialist working within the Department of Computer Science at the Sapienza University of Rome. In addition, he is head of the Sapienza Natural Language Processing (NLP) Group and creator of BabelNet, the largest multilingual encyclopaedic computational dictionary in the world. In 2013, he received the prestigious Marco Cadoli AI*IA prize for his results as a young Italian researcher working in the field of AI. He won an ERC Starting Grant in 2010, and an ERC Consolidator Grant in 2016.

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Josep Peñuelas, Michael Obersteiner,
Ivan Janssens, Philippe Ciais

Bringing the impact of nutrient imbalance to global attention

Through combining their expertise, four ERC grantees have awoken the scientific community to what nutrient imbalances could mean for our planet, and for our species. Their findings could lead the world towards more accurate climate modelling, more equitable policymaking, and more sustainable food production.

Carbon, phosphorus and nitrogen are three elements essential for life on Earth. Phosphorus, for example, is present in our DNA structure, cell membranes and bones, and is the key ingredient in many fertilisers. But while the availability of carbon and nitrogen is rapidly increasing in most parts of the world, phosphorus – a finite resource – is not.

This mineral imbalance has implications for climate change and biodiversity, as well as for geopolitics and food security.

The sheer scope of this challenge led to an interdisciplinary ERC Synergy project, which brought together four leading researchers specialising in ecosystem diversity, biogeochemistry, Earth modelling and resource economics.

‘The breadth of results we achieved would never have been possible without this collaboration’, says Josep Peñuelas from the Global Ecology Unit CREAF-CSIC in Spain. ‘Scientists tend to work only in the field in which they are experts in. But this Synergy grant enabled us to learn a lot from each other. This is how breakthrough science is achieved.’

This Synergy grant enabled us to learn a lot from each other. This is how breakthrough science is achieved

Ecosystems, economies and biodiversity

Even before the ERC grant, Ivan Janssens, Professor of Biology at the University of Antwerp, Belgium, had been working with Peñuelas on issues related to nitrogen and phosphorus.

‘We felt however that we needed to tap into the global, societal relevance of this issue’, he explains. ‘This is where Michael Obersteiner came in.’ Obersteiner, an expert in climate, energy and land-use, is the Director of the Environmental Change Institute in Oxford, UK, and a senior research scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Austria. To complete the project team, Earth systems modeller Philippe Ciais from the Institut Pierre Simon Laplace in France was added. ‘I think he found our project proposal just too exciting’, adds Janssens.

Together, these four researchers set out to map and model the impact of nutrient imbalance on ecosystems, economies and biological diversity. Their studies covered various locations and different types of ecosystems.

They gathered data at both microbial level, to understand the impact of nutrient imbalances on soil, and at ecosystem level, where the impact on tree growth and biodiversity were measured.

‘From the climate perspective, we saw that nutrient imbalance has been a neglected driver of global climate change’, says Peñuelas. ‘This is because it has the potential to impact the capacity of vegetation to absorb CO2.’ This understanding could have significant consequences in our attempts to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and may require climate models to be revised.

The researchers also examined the impact of resource scarcity on global governance and agriculture. When the project began, many commodity prices, including phosphorus, were rocketing.

‘A key issue that surfaced was: how can we feed the world and get enough fertiliser to places where it is needed?’, says Obersteiner. Leading on from this, they investigated new sustainable food and feed sources, such as algae.

Globally influential results

A measure of the success of these four scientists has been the impact of their research on the global scientific and policymaking community. Over 500 papers have been published, and the issue of nutrient imbalance is now firmly on the global agenda. Results have influenced European Commission policy impact assessments, been featured by the World Wildlife Fund, and supported negotiation platforms under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD).

The project team developed new climate modelling approaches and even machine learning techniques. Data on nutrient cycling as it relates to ecosystem functioning were integrated in nine biodiversity models, demonstrating viable pathways towards curbing biodiversity loss.

‘The inclusion of the nutrient dimension in climate modelling is especially important for countries with a lot of vegetation, like Russia or Brazil’, says Obersteiner. ‘We have demonstrated that this is feasible to do.’

On land management, the team confirmed the need for the more targeted use of phosphorous globally, and for the sourcing of food and feed from more sustainable sources such as algae. They have even published papers on the health impacts of over-fertilisation, with a focus on nitrogen fertilisation and coeliac disease. ‘Ultimately, this project has opened up many more questions’, adds Obersteiner.

ERC_research · How the ERC transformed science - interview with Josep Peñuelas

About the researchers

Josep Peñuelas is an internationally recognised ecologist and Professor at the National Research Council of Spain. He is the Director of the CREAF-CSIC-UAB Global Ecology Unit, part of CREAF- Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.

Ivan Janssens is a biogeochemist and Professor at the University of Antwerp, Belgium. A climate specialist, Janssens is also Coordinator of the Center of Excellence: Global Change Ecology.

Michael Obersteiner is Director of the Environmental Change Institute, part of the University of Oxford, UK, and a senior research scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Austria. He is a specialist in biophysical modelling in the areas of ecosystems, forestry and agriculture.

Philippe Ciais is a climate scientist working within the Institut Pierre Simon Laplace (IPSL), part of the Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l'Environnement (LSCE), headquartered in Gif-Sur-Yvette, France.

Together, the four scientists were awarded an ERC Synergy grant in 2013.

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Sonia Seneviratne

Tracking extreme heat to improve climate change forecasts

Plants evaporate less in dry conditions, which can lead to a warming of the air. ERC grantee Sonia Seneviratne has quantified this phenomenon, resulting in findings that could transform climate modelling, and help scientists to navigate our way towards a viable low-carbon future.

Climate modelling is used by scientists to identify sustainable pathways towards achieving reductions in carbon emissions. The accuracy of these models is critical to the development of successful climate mitigation strategies, and therefore to the very future of our planet.

‘If we are to meet our carbon emission reduction obligations under the Paris Agreement, then we have to be very careful in following pathways that are resilient’, explains Sonia Seneviratne, Professor of Land-Climate Dynamics at ETH Zürich, Switzerland.

Seneviratne, who has spent her career studying droughts and heatwaves, was concerned that extreme weather events such as these were not being fully taken into consideration in mitigation scenarios. An ERC grant enabled her to focus on better understanding land-climate dynamics in the context of climate change.

Extreme climate impacts

Seneviratne began by collecting data from satellites and ground observations. From this, she was able to develop a set of metrics to assess the relationship between different variables. For example, how do heat waves affect water in the soil, and in turn, how do droughts affect heat waves?

‘Evaporation on land is a strong component of the water cycle’, she explains. ‘This process is affected by vegetation, as plants are the medium through which this evaporation mostly takes place.’

Seneviratne found that because plants evaporate less during droughts and heatwaves, this can contribute to further warming of the air. ‘In very dry climates, you don’t have this cooling mechanism’, she explains. ‘This further contributes to very high temperatures in regions that dry out as a result of climate change.’

Drought can also impact the global level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air, according to Seneviratne’s research. To reach this conclusion, together with her team she calculated water storage on continents around the world – mainly in the form of soil moisture – using measurements from satellites. The researchers compared this data with global-scale measurements of changes in the amount of CO2 in the air, and discovered a correlation.

In drier years, they found that there was much more CO2 in the air. This suggests that carbon sinks on land are much less efficient when an extensive fraction of the land area is affected by droughts, an issue that was found to be underestimated in current models. ‘Extreme climate scenarios could lead to far more warming than what has actually been projected’, she says.

Extreme climate scenarios could lead to far more warming than what has actually been projected

Finding solutions quickly

Taken together, the metrics that Seneviratne’s team developed form a diagnostic atlas that can be used to validate existing climate models. This work also has implications for land management, another important consideration in low-emission scenarios.

Resilient pathways often include increased use of biofuels and reforestation, for example. But as Seneviratne’s research has shown, extreme climate conditions can significantly impact vegetation. Droughts and heatwaves could therefore mean that crops and forests cannot grow, or that their contribution to capturing CO2 is reduced.

‘What we found was that these variable relationships between global warming and extremes in climate models could be fairly easily represented with linear models and a variability emulator’, she says. ‘So as a spin-off of my main research we developed a climate model emulator, to represent these simple relationships in a way that doesn’t use a lot of computer power.’

This emulator could have a major impact on climate change modelling. As Seneviratne points out, climate modeling experiments, which inform reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, can take years to produce. When it comes to tackling climate change, time is not on our side.

‘What this emulator gives you is an initial assessment of how extremes might evolve on a regional scale under a particular emissions pathway’, she says. ‘This can be delivered in a matter of days. It won’t be perfect, as there are a lot of uncertainties, but it can give scientists an idea of the plausibility of an emission pathway.’

The climate change clock is ticking and time is of the essence. Seneviratne’s ERC-funded research could play an important role in bringing us all safely to the goals set out in the Paris Agreement.

ERC_research · How the ERC transformed science - interview with Sonia Seneviratne

About the researcher

Sonia Seneviratne is a professor at the Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science of ETH Zürich. After completing her PhD in climate science at ETH Zürich in 2003, Seneviratne was a visiting researcher at the NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, USA. After returning to Zürich, she was appointed Assistant Professor in 2007, Associate Professor in 2013, and Professor in 2016. Seneviratne received an ERC Consolidator Grant in 2013 and an ERC Proof of Concept Grant in 2020.

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Katerina Douka

Revealing our shared past through archaeological findings

Pioneering new methods for identifying ancient fragments of human bone have helped to prove that human species interbred. The techniques, developed by ERC grantee Katerina Douka, are currently being shared through a growing global network of researchers and could provide insights that extend well beyond historical analysis.

In 2010, scientists discovered a finger bone in a cave in Siberia. Genetic analysis revealed that it belonged to a newly discovered human species, which was named ‘Denisovan’, after the cave.

‘When I visited the site a few years later, I saw that the vast majority of material coming out of the ground was in tiny fragments’, recalls Katerina Douka, who is based at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. ‘It was then that I had a eureka moment – what if we used new molecular methods to screen and pick out human bones?’

Douka realised that well-preserved bone fragments from the frigid Siberian cave would still contain traces of proteins, especially collagen. Researchers from the University of York in the UK had previously developed a molecular technique to screen for protein-containing material such as animal bones, parchment or leather. Douka thought to apply this technique to fragments of human bone which otherwise could not be identified because they were so small.

Identifying our mixed heritage

In the pilot study with material from Denisovan cave, Douka and her colleagues made an incredible discovery – the fragment of a bone that belonged to a girl, perhaps 13 years old, whose mother was a Neanderthal and father was a Denisovan. This proved conclusively that these two human species interbred. The discovery enabled Douka to secure ERC funding and continue her ground-breaking work.

Douka aims to build on this remarkable discovery, and to identify more human fossils using this collagen fingerprinting method. ‘The screening tool is fast – we can go through about 1,000 bones a week – and it is relatively cheap’, explains Douka. Once a human bone is identified, DNA methodologies are applied to learn more about the fragment – which human species it belonged to, and using methods such as radiocarbon dating, how old it is, for example.

‘This work is so fascinating, and also so relevant today’, says Douka. ‘These bone fragments belonged to people who died thousands of years ago, but who are now helping to shine a light on modern humanity.’

Modern humans have inherited a lot of genetic material from human species that no longer exist. Research into the SARS-CoV-2 virus, for example, has shown that genes inherited from Neanderthals can influence an individual’s response to infection. ‘This shows how this period of interbreeding continues to shape us’, says Douka.

This project is about recognising our shared humanity.

Archaeology with global impact

The project promises to reveal more. The modern techniques being applied require just fragments of bone that contain enough genetic material to work with. Furthermore, this new era of scientific archaeology is reaching every corner of the world, thanks in part to Douka’s research. An impressive global network of researchers and facilities is being built.

‘Our project is setting up what we call ZooMS (Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry) labs in parts of the world where such facilities did not previously exist’, says Douka. ‘We have already helped build a new lab in Novosibirsk, Russia and one in China. We are also committed to sharing data and knowledge. This means that local scientists can work on sites without having to send samples to Europe, or wait for western scientists to arrive.’

The project team has also collaborated with an NGO to identify ivory artefacts bought on the European black market, and with museums to carry out the non-destructive sampling of artefacts. A benefit of collagen fingerprinting is that it requires just a tiny sample.

Finally, Douka hopes that the project’s discoveries will help people to realise that human history expands well beyond the relatively recent formation of countries and nationalities, to a time when we were all truly citizens of the world.

‘I think that understanding our human evolution can help to break down ideologies that rely on racial superiority’, she says. ‘Issues like skin colour are so ephemeral – 7,000 years ago, humans arriving in England may have looked similar to sub-Saharan Africans. This project is about recognising our shared humanity.’

ERC_research · How the ERC transformed science - interview with Katerina Douka

About the researcher

Katerina Douka is an archaeological scientist and Group Leader of the Department of Archaeology at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. She specialises in radiocarbon dating and the application of chronometric and biomolecular methodologies. She won an ERC Starting Grant in 2016.

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John Diffley

Unravelling the intricacies of DNA replication

Every cell in the human body contains a blueprint of DNA which enables it to create a perfect copy when the cell divides. Captivated by this idea, ERC grantee John Diffley has unlocked new opportunities in structural biology by succeeding to recreate the entire DNA replication process. This ambitious and transformative research has generated a deeper understanding of an essential process in human cells and has inspired molecular research, in the UK and worldwide, with implications for the study and treatment of cancer.

A biochemist and geneticist by training, John Diffley has always been fascinated by inheritance. He has dedicated his decades-long career to studying DNA replication and the transmission of genetic material. ‘A lot of DNA information needs to be copied every time a cell divides’, he says. ‘That’s 3 billion base pairs in every cell!’

In 2010, Diffley won an ERC grant to reconstitute the entire process of DNA replication in vitro (in a test tube). At the time, the general principles of the two-step mechanism guiding DNA replication were well established. Yet, critical unknowns remained about the details of the process, the requisite number of proteins, their specific roles and modes of regulation.

To contextualise his DNA replication research, Diffley references American theoretical physicist Richard Feynman: ‘What I cannot create, I do not understand.’ He further clarifies, ‘We had to reconstitute the process of DNA replication – the constituent parts – to truly understand it.’

Upon receiving the ERC grant, Diffley’s research group at the Clare Hall Laboratories in London, now the Francis Crick Institute, had already recreated the first step of the replication process. The challenge was the next step, which involved the expression and purification of a sizeable set of (12-13) proteins. This required a new methodology that could break down a complex process into manageable, incremental steps.

Retooling an approach for essential discoveries

‘ERC funding really allowed us to turn the big oil tanker of a research programme around to focus on a different approach’, says Diffley. ‘It can be hard to change a lab, so this support was essential to retooling the lab for biochemical, not genetic, experiments.’

Over the next 4 years, Diffley and his post-docs followed their novel protein purification process, getting closer to their ambitious goal of reanimating the DNA replication process. ‘There was an absolutely key day in August 2014’, he recounts. ‘We saw this tiny radioactive smudge. At this moment, we knew we had finally cracked it.’

By recreating the process, Diffley could make some essential discoveries, or what he calls ‘atomic insights’, including the minimum (16) proteins needed to initiate DNA replication, specific protein functions and corrective processes (i.e. ATP hydrolysis, a proofreading mechanism).

ERC funding really allowed us to turn the big oil tanker of a research programme around to focus on a different approach


Atomic insights with practical applications

Diffley’s research has transformed the field, inspiring his students, colleagues and laboratories around the world to look closely at structural biology. The very mechanisms explored by his research group also shed light on the misregulation of DNA replication and the causes of genetic mutations in cancerous cells. These discoveries have implications for developing personal medical diagnoses and treatment strategies.

Diffley sees ERC support as instrumental in being able to continue his work. He is already building on the results with a new ERC grant that runs until October 2021. His scientific inquiries remain committed to furthering our understanding of elements of structural biology, such as chromosome duplication.

ERC_research · How the ERC transformed science - interview with John Diffley

About the researcher

John Diffley was born and raised in New York. Upon receiving his PhD from New York University in 1985, Diffley became a postdoctoral fellow with Bruce Stillman at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, NY. In 1990, he came to the United Kingdom to set up his own research group at the Clare Hall Laboratories in London. In 2015, this merged with the Francis Crick Institute, where he is now Associate Research Director of the Chromosome Replication Laboratory. He won his first ERC Advanced Grant in 2009, and the second one in 2014.

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Elaine Chew

Unlocking the therapeutic power of music through mathematics

Developing mathematical models to describe the role of musical performance could open the door to new applications, including treating cardiac arrhythmia. ERC grantee Elaine Chew has brought together radically different disciplines in order to drive and expand our understanding of this complex and elusive concept.

Music and mathematics have been a part of Elaine Chew’s life since she began giving public piano performances at the age of ten. ‘I come from a family of mathematicians’, she says. ‘Maths was behind how life was organised and explained. When we moved house, for example, my father made models of the furniture and room layouts to analyse them as packing problems.’

ERC funding provided Chew, a researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in France, with the opportunity to combine her two passions and explore new frontiers of science. As a performer, she has always been fascinated by how music is communicated.

‘What gives a piece of music coherence?’ she asks. ‘Can we formalise this knowledge and turn it into something translatable, so more people can gain from this knowledge?’

Analysing the performance gap

Chew wanted to take the study of music beyond the traditional focus of composers, to understand what happens when music is transmitted from notes on a page to the audience. In essence, she wanted to explore through mathematical models what performers do in the otherwise intangible gap between the composer and the listener.

This unique focus has made Chew’s work extremely difficult to define. ‘Does my project sit best in computer science, social science, psychology or the arts and humanities?’ asks Chew. ‘The project also draws heavily on my mathematical background, as it involves writing equations to represent things, in this case, the perception and cognition of music.’

Her project has brought together a highly interdisciplinary and complementary team from across a number of academic disciplines. It also foresees a key role for citizens. ‘Musical performance is not just for trained musicians’, notes Chew. ‘Everyone listens to music. Involving the public will help us to understand the extent to which the communication of music is teachable, and how much is naturally perceived.’

Music can push us to the limits of what is humanly possible and achievable


Music as medicine

Together with her team, Chew is currently working on a citizen science platform. The platform, called CosmoNote, will be used to run different sets of participatory music studies targeted at different groups of people. The aim is for the platform to be engaging and fun, enabling the project team to carry out their analyses of how music is performed and perceived.

The experience aims to increase the team’s understanding of musical performance, and could lead to some interesting applications, including within therapeutic healthcare. Chew notes that these new mathematical ways of describing musical performance could also be used to describe physiological signals within the body. The technique could be applied to irregular heartbeats, for instance, therefore providing new ways to represent and understand variations in cardiac arrhythmia.

‘Musicians describe time-varying sequences and structures, and analyse them unfolding’, explains Chew. ‘The techniques we use to handle music can also be used to understand cardiovascular signals.’

‘Music touches the whole human experience’, says Chew. ‘It relaxes us, but it also gets us pumped up, excited, inspired and moved. It would be interesting to enable individuals to shape music so that it benefits them intellectually and mentally, and not just physically. Music can push us to the limits of what is humanly possible and achievable.’


ERC_research · How the ERC transformed science - interview with Elaine Chew


About the researcher

Professor Elaine Chew is a mathematical scientist and performance pianist. She is currently a Senior Researcher affiliated with the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) at the Sciences and Technologies of Music and Sound (STMS) Laboratory in Paris, France. She is also a Visiting Professor at King’s College London. Chew completed her PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), focusing on the mathematical modelling of tonality. She won an ERC Advanced grant in 2018, and an ERC Proof of Concept grant in 2020.


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Maya Schuldiner

Unveiling the mysteries of basic cellular structures

ERC grantee Maya Schuldiner has harnessed 21st-century microscopy and employed an interdisciplinary approach to visualise basic cellular phenomena for the first time. Her work radically altered the established understanding of organelles – the functional elements of a cell – in the field of cell biology. The findings also have implications for human health and, more specifically, for understanding and treating rare genetic conditions.

Maya Schuldiner has always been fascinated by the secret dynamics of life’s tiniest components. ‘Cells use molecules like words,’ she says. ‘In the human body, the various parts of the cell need to communicate with each other constantly to create life.’

In 2010, Schuldiner, and her lab at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, set out to explore the molecular structures underlying communication inside cells. They used customised microscopic technology to map out the specific areas (subdomains) that enable communication of a specific organelle, the endoplasmic reticulum (ER). Like organs in the human body, organelles in the cell have specific functions. The ER serves as the transportation system of the eukaryotic cell.

According to Schuldiner, this promised ‘an unprecedented glimpse into this tiny, but highly complex, mechanism of human life.’

Fuelling a paradigm shift in cell biology

By the 1950s, cellular biologists had observed the membrane of the ER under an electron microscope and shown that it can be found extremely close to other organelles. Less known were the intricacies of these subdomains – how they form, what they communicate, and why this is important. Schuldiner was standing at the edge of a decades-long gap between the accepted understanding of basic cellular functioning and what could be seen under a microscope. ‘We know so little about many fundamental cellular processes’, she says. ‘ERC funding has allowed us to create tools to better understand these processes.’

Schuldiner’s lab spent one year designing a tailor-made robotics system. This high-content microscopy technology enabled not only the mapping and tracking of proteins in the ER but also automated data collection, so that experiments could be constantly performed at high throughput, without human intervention.

ERC support allowed me to crystallise my own view of doing biology as well as my lab’s ability to do world-leading science

An interdisciplinary game-changer

At the time of applying for ERC funding, Schuldiner’s lab had been running for about two years. She needed to consolidate the expertise required to handle the equipment and process the rapid data intake. With ERC support, she was able to hire a highly proficient interdisciplinary team of post-docs and researchers in genetics, biochemistry and cell biology.

Over the years, the team systematically mapped the structure of various subdomains in the ER – a first in the field of cellular biology. ‘To visualise and rapidly process high content data was really a game-changer’, admits Schuldiner. The interdisciplinary team was essential to the project’s breakthroughs; namely, a deeper understanding of the structures for cellular communication between organelles. ‘We discovered that this cellular phenomenon is more complex, regulated and important for cell survival and human physiology than previously thought.’

New understanding, new applications

Since the project’s completion in 2015, organelle research has transitioned from a visually poor to a visually rich and exciting domain, ultimately fuelling a new area of cell biology focused on cellular communication in the areas between organelles (‘contact sites’).

The project has also had a transformative effect on Schuldiner personally. ‘ERC support allowed me to crystallise my own view of doing biology as well as my lab’s ability to do world-leading science’, she says. In this vein, visiting researchers from around the world are invited to use her lab’s cutting-edge robotics system to answer their own biological questions. Schuldiner is particularly inspired by consultation requests from rare disease experts, with a view to helping identify the cause and treatment of patients suffering from rare genetic conditions.

Thanks to additional ERC funding, Schuldiner is currently upscaling this high-throughput technology. The aim is to discover new organelle communication structures and better understand the genetic and chemical compounds that modulate cellular functioning.

ERC_research · How the ERC transformed science - interview with Maya Schuldiner

About the researcher

Professor Maya Schuldiner is a member of the Department of Molecular Genetics at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. She completed her undergraduate and graduate studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She went on to complete her post-doctoral studies at the laboratory of Prof. Jonathan Weissman at University of California, San Francisco, USA. She started her own lab in 2008 at the Weizmann Institute of Science, where she has been committed to studying the functional genomics of organelles. She won an ERC Starting Grant in 2010, and an ERC Consolidator Grant in 2014 and in 2020.

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Ülo Niinemets

Evaluating how plant stress impacts our climate

The work of ERC grantee Ülo Niinemets has shown that monitoring plant stress emissions could help us to better understand atmospheric processes. This has led to a rethink on global climate modelling and strengthened research into crop resilience. His project’s successful international collaboration has also demonstrated how ERC funding can boost scientific excellence in smaller countries like Estonia.

Many plants release carbon into the atmosphere at night. What is less well-known, however, is that these emissions also contain a variety of volatile components. Ülo Niinemets, from the Estonian University of Life Sciences, wanted to demonstrate that not only are these emissions a reaction to stress, but also that they should be taken into account in climate modelling.

‘When we think about the life of plants, we tend to focus on their ability to convert solar energy in order to grow and develop’, he notes. ‘We forget that plants also experience stress in terms of temperature, nutrient scarcity and predators.’

The volatile compounds emitted as a result of this stress can have a positive impact on the climate due to their contribution to the formation of clouds and aerosols, both of which can have a cooling effect. Aerosols, in particular, help to reduce the level of solar radiation present in the atmosphere, which in turn helps to lower temperatures.

Considering that most climate models have severely underestimated the impact of these factors, Niinemets aimed to attain a better and more accurate understanding of the role of plants in Earth processes and climate change.

The ERC grant was critical in enabling Niinemets to carry out this pioneering work. ‘If you come from a small country like Estonia with limited resources, this kind of research can be a very difficult thing to do’, he says.

Re-thinking climate modelling

With the help of ERC funding, Niinemets was able to investigate a range of plant stress emissions, from what happens at the level of a single leaf to an entire canopy. His project focused on both the regional and the global impact of these emissions.

‘When we started, very few people were thinking in this direction’, he says. ‘This meant that most atmospheric or climate models did not include plant stress emissions. The role of plant emissions, which can condense to form aerosols, was often the weak part of climate reports.’

By providing concrete data on plant stress emissions at a global level, Niinemets hopes to address this weakness, ensuring that such emissions are fully taken into account in the future and that climate reports are more robust and accurate.

A critical thread running throughout the project has been international collaboration. Chinese and Korean scientists were able to visit Niinemets’ lab to start work on a line of experiments designed to strengthen plant stress tolerance using bacteria.

‘This research focused on important crops like rice, and forest trees like eucalyptus’, says Niinemets. ‘We found that certain bacteria allow plants to extract nutrients from relatively infertile soil, and to improve their resistance to drought.’

I now have 11 nationalities in my lab. This exposes young Estonian researchers to a wider world

From stress to resilience

On a practical level, this collaborative research could lead to applications in the field of agriculture. New tools designed to detect stressful conditions early could enable farmers to identify when a plant or crop is stressed, and take appropriate action.

As Niinemets points out, once a crop is being eaten by a pest, it is often too late to save. ‘Sensitive monitoring of volatile compound initiatives could help farmers to diagnose exactly what the problem is’, he says. ‘We plan to continue this research, to try to understand the evolution of volatile emissions right down to the molecular level.’

Niinemets is one of only about a dozen Estonian researchers to be awarded an ERC grant. He believes that the project’s ambitious objectives, groundbreaking findings and international focus have provided an important boost for the country’s research community.

‘Working with other countries has been hugely beneficial’, he says. ‘I now have 11 nationalities in my lab. This exposes young Estonian researchers to a wider world, encourages them to speak in English and to work in an international setting.’

ERC_research · How the ERC transformed science - interview with Ülo Niinemets

About the researcher

Professor Ülo Niinemets is an environmental scientist and biologist, specialising in the physiology of volatile organic compound emissions. He is Professor of Crop Science and Plant Biology within the Institute of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the Estonian University of Life Sciences, based in Tartu, Estonia. Niinemets won an ERC Advanced Grant in 2012.

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Vernesa Smolčić

Understanding the universe by stargazing through cosmic time

Astronomy pioneer and ERC grantee Vernesa Smolčić probed unexplored areas of space, using highly accurate state-of-the-art radio telescopes, to answer fundamental questions about the origin of the universe. Based in Croatia, her international team has generated valuable datasets on star formation as well as stellar and supermassive black hole growth in galaxies. Their work has leveraged Croatian radio astronomy research on the international stage.

Human civilisation has always looked to the stars for answers to existential questions about the universe, such as how it came to be and what else could be out there. With ERC support, Vernesa Smolčić sought to answer some of these fundamental questions by closely analysing the evolution of galaxies throughout time. Based at the University of Zagreb in Croatia, she oversaw the reduction, imaging, testing and verification of hundreds of hours of radio telescope observations between 2014 and 2019.

Using this vast amount of data, Smolčić’s team has succeeded in probing galaxy and star formation back through cosmic time – as far back as around 1 billion years after the Big Bang.

Improved instrumentation brings forth new data

Smolčić felt a mix of excitement and uncertainty at the start of her ERC-funded work. ‘There were more than a few unknowns in the field due, primarily, to instrumental limitations at the time’, she explains. In 2014, Smolčić’s team was one of the first to use new and upgraded radio telescopes in Chile, USA, Australia and India. These telescopes offered a higher level of accuracy for tracing star formations and detecting galaxies, stretching back to when the universe was very young.

‘ERC funding really allowed me to conduct my research at the highest competitive levels’, Smolčić notes. Among other things, she was able to assemble a highly international team. Beyond the 2-7 researchers based at the hub in Croatia, and the 15-20 researchers who comprised the core radio team based both in Croatia and throughout Europe, she also routinely engaged with astronomy institutions from Italy, Germany, the United States, Chile, and Australia.

ERC funding really allowed me to conduct my research at the highest competitive levels

A window into the cosmic past

While the observation phase was very time consuming, Smolčić was immediately taken aback by the extent of the data. She was not only probing new areas of Space, but she was observing radio wavelengths that no other scientist had been able to see through a telescope lens in such detail, or for so many galaxies.

Three years down the line, her team had over 850 hours of data. They analysed and assembled datasets (radio sky mosaics, data collections) on various types of galaxies, their sources and physical properties. These datasets were made publicly available to the broader astronomy community, to be used by other scientists to explore more of the universe’s unknowns.

For Smolčić, the datasets are a critical legacy of her team’s work. ‘We basically prepared the grounds for the further exploration of galaxies with new radio facilities that are only now starting to operate to full capacity’, she says. At the time of writing, these datasets had been referenced in over 250 published papers.

From Croatia to the cosmos

On a personal level, Croatia was always an important location for Smolčić – starting with her childhood stargazing on the Croatian coast, her exposure to astronomy at school and eventual career as a professional astronomer. In 2014, she was one of the first researchers in Croatia to receive an ERC starting grant, which she says helped accelerate her career in the country. Throughout the grant, she advanced to a full professorship and now is one of the three leaders of COSMOS and part of the Scientific Steering Committee of XXL, both of which are international observational astronomy consortia. She also trained 7 junior researchers, who have since gone on to have successful careers.

In light of the above, her team’s achievements have propelled Croatian radio astronomy research on the international stage. Still, there is more work to be done with the massive amount of data her team has collected so far: ‘There is so much more to explore in even earlier cosmic time.’

ERC_research · How the ERC transformed science - interview with Vernesa Smolčić

About the researcher

Vernesa Smolčić studied physics at the University of Zagreb, where she is now a full professor at the Department of Physics in the Faculty of Science. She obtained her PhD in 2007 from the University of Heidelberg, Germany, followed by a postdoctoral position at Caltech in California, USA. In 2009, she obtained an independent ESO ALMA COFUND Fellowship from the European Southern Observatory. In 2013, she won one of the first ERC Starting Grants in Croatia.

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