Highlighted research projects: Starting Grant 2019
03 September 2019
Cover image of Highlighted research projects: Starting Grant 2019

Some examples of ERC 2019 Starting Grants winners.


Single cell organisms and their complex lives

Life at the microscale is remarkably sophisticated. The simplest organisms, formed by a single cell, have the ability to react to their surroundings and change their behaviour in order to survive in their own minuscule worlds. Understanding how these tiny, brainless organisms, the oldest lifeforms on earth, control their movements to get what they need can tell us lot about what lies behind the evolution of complex, coordinated behaviour.

Dr Kirsty Wan and her team will use her newly-awarded ERC Starting Grant to investigate the sensory and motor pathways used by unicellular organisms in order to understand how they respond dynamically to their environment. By working at the interface of biology, physics and mathematics, this 5-year research project will develop new interdisciplinary methods to determine the limits of what single cells can do as well as develop new theoretical models to explain behaviour in non-model species. The project will make use of recently available high-speed, high-sensitivity scientific instruments to show how microscopic organisms devoid of a brain can nonetheless perform complicated activities that provide an insight into the unicellular origins of memory and cognition.


Project: Moving around without a brain: Evolution of basal cognition in single-celled organisms (EvoMotion)
Researcher: Kirsty Yixin Wan
Host Institution: University of Exeter, UK
ERC Funding: € € 1,950,430


How cells are effected by their environment

We all know humans mostly consist of cells, but the properties of what makes up the rest of our bodies are less studied. The non-cellular component present within all tissues and organs is called the extracellular matrix (ECM). It provides essential physical scaffolding for cells but its mechanical properties also trigger key biological processes that change tissues, for example during growth, wound healing and cancer development. Until now, the vast majority of research efforts in this field have been focused on ECM’s elasticity as a leading determinant of cell and tissue behaviour. However, ECM is not only elastic but also viscous, and while how viscoelasticity (VE) affects tissue function is unknown, it is suspected to have a greater effect than elasticity. As all tissues are viscoelastic, the biomedical impact of research into VE is expected to be dramatic, and could influence fields ranging from regenerative medicine, to cancer, and fibrosis.

Alberto Elosegui-Artola, who started his career in mechanical and biomedical engineering, aims to find out which biophysical and molecular mechanisms cells use to sense changes in their environment, and how they react to them. He will initially focus on breast tissue and cancer. Dr Elosegui-Artola is currently funded by a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Global Fellowship at Harvard University and will return to Europe to conduct his new ERC Starting Grant funded research project at CIC biomaGUNE, in his home town of San Sebastian.


Project: Dynamic regulation of tissue response by matrix viscoelasticity (VISCOMATRIX)
Researcher: Alberto Elosegui-Artola
Host Institution: Asociacion Centro De Investigacion Cooperativa En Biomateriales - CIC biomaGUNE, Spain
ERC Funding: € 1.5 million for five years


Are digital platforms changing our vision of humanity?

Online platforms, from Google to Facebook, from Apple to Airbnb, have integrated all domains of our lives: they have changed the way we interact, travel, shop, and even form romantic partnerships. Researchers have been analysing how digital infrastructures function and their social impact. Dr Niels Niessen proposes to look at our digital age from another angle. With his Starting Grant, he will study how tech companies, through their communication, increasingly position their platform as "public" spaces while they address their users as digital citizens or members of a caring humanity.

He will critically analyse the materials tech companies produce to sell their products, seek to gain consumers’ trust and take part in the public debate. What are the visions of human life underpinning their texts, images and videos? Dr Niessen’s team will work on corporate blogs, product advertising, companies’ public statements and sustainability reports among others. Using methods from literary and cultural studies and film and media studies, he wants to bring to light the visions of human condition, everyday life, sustainability and community that tech companies promote. He also aims to capture their visions of digital citizenship and how they could affect citizen-state relations.
In 2016, Dr Niessen came back to the Netherlands after eight years as a researcher in the US and Canada. His ERC grant will allow him to set up his research team at the Radboud University in Nijmegen.


Project: Platform Discourses: A Critical Humanities Approach to the Texts, Images, and Moving Images Produced by Tech Companies (PLATFORM DISCOURSES)
Researcher: Niels Niessen
Host Institution: Radboud University, The Netherlands
ERC Funding: € 1.2 million for five years


How are decisions made by groups?

The evolution of complex animal societies depends on the ability of groups to reach a consensus and make collective decisions. But how do they do this, and do some individuals have more influence than others? Groups’ ability to make decisions is determined by a range of factors, including the composition of the group and their physical environment. Individual’s influence can be determined by their physical state, their social role, or their relationships with other group members. To date, most studies have investigated these aspects in isolation. The aim of Damien Farine’s new ERC funded project is to take a ‘whole-system’ approach to this question. His in-depth research aims to address major gaps in our current understanding of social behaviour in mobile animal groups - including humans - and the role that collective behaviour play in helping or hindering evolutionary responses to environmental change.

Dr Farine’s team, based at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz, Germany, will use innovative technology and develop new methods to collect and analyse multi-scale data from a wild bird population. These data include the birds’ movement within and between groups (using high-resolution GPS), their social interactions (via direct observations), kinship (from whole-genome sequencing), physiology (from heart rate), and environmental conditions (using drone-based mapping). Damien Farine originally studied Microelectronic Engineering and Computer Science in Australia. He moved to the University of Oxford, UK, where he completed a PHD in Zoology, then to the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Davis, USA, before establishing a research group on Social Evolutionary Ecology at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology.


Project: The Ecology of Collective Behaviour (ECOLBEH)
Researcher: Damien Farine
Host Institution: Max-Planck-Gesellschaft Zur Forderung Der Wissenschaften e.V. (MPG), Germany
ERC Funding: € 1.5 million for five years


Forest food - crucial for food security

Two billion people across the planet suffer from nutrient deficiencies - key to solving this problem is dietary diversification. Most large-scale funding efforts to increase food security have prioritized increasing agricultural production and crop yields. However, while sustainable intensification of agriculture is now shaping global development efforts, in poorer countries it might lead to worsening diets within rural communities, by triggering a shift to cash crop monocultures, rather than diversified production and consumption. Transition to cash crops is also a leading cause of forest loss and fragmentation. This is problematic and perhaps counterproductive as forests are important for people in rural landscapes.

Forests provide wild foods, which are high-value products that can be sold to enable food purchases, they supply fodder for livestock, and they provide ecosystem services such as pollination, which in turn improves agricultural productivity. Pursuing an in-depth understanding of how forests support diets is thus paramount to overcome nutrient deficiencies. Assistant professor Laura Vang Rasmussen at the University of Copenhagen aims to identify exactly how forest loss and fragmentation affect people’s dietary quality - applying a cutting-edge multi-scale, multi-country, and data-rich approach in places such as Malawi and Tanzania. The results of this agenda-setting project could feed into programs in low-income countries facing the double challenge of forest loss and high malnutrition rates. Geographer Laura Vang Rasmussen received her Doctorate in Denmark, and also performed extensive research at University of Michigan, USA and the University of British Columbia, Canada.


Project: Reinterpreting how forests support people's dietary quality in low-income countries (FORESTDIET)
Researcher: Laura Vang Rasmussen
Host Institution: University of Copenhagen, Denmark
ERC Funding: € 1.4 million for five years


Rising sea levels under close watch

By the end of 21st century, sea levels are estimated to rise between 40 and 60 centimetres worldwide. Coping with this phenomenon, induced by climate change, is one of the most important challenges of modern societies, as higher sea levels increase the likelihood of extreme events, such as floods, and the risks associated with them. The purpose of Dr Jadranka Šepić’s work is to develop the first, comprehensive analysis of intensity, frequency, and spatial and temporal distribution of present and future extreme sea levels along the European coasts. Her research has the potential to improve assessment studies related to extreme sea levels, as well as coastal planning.

Jadranka Šepić is a Research associate at the Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries in Split, Croatia. Before obtaining a PhD in geophysics at the University of Zagreb (Croatia), she was a Research fellow at the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney, Canada, and at the University of the Balearic Islands in Palma de Mallorca (Spain).


Project: Estimating contribution of sub-hourly sea level oscillations to overall sea level extremes in changing climate (SHExtreme)
Researcher: Jadranka Šepić
Host Institution: Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries, Croatia
ERC Funding: € 806 250 for five years


The role of colloquial expressions in the construction of personal identities

You probably know that using common forms of expressions like "drinkin" instead of "drinking" can influence how you are perceived. But do you know how the listener’s brain makes such an assessment? The idea that society influences the way we perceive and present ourselves is one of the most powerful of the last 25 years, and language plays a critical role in the process. Although identity construction through language is a fundamental notion in the humanities and social sciences, we do not yet have a precise picture of how the mechanism operates in our brains.

Dr Heather Burnett based her research project on the idea that the brain uses processes that are similar to other kinds of linguistic communication. She will formalise current sociolinguistic theories using game theory and will design a way to analyse the subtle information gathered from in the speaker's use of a particular expression and its role in the construction of personal identities. Dr Burnett's research result could unite diverse lines of research across the social, cognitive and information sciences and help advance the understanding of the relationship between social meaning and identity construction.

Dr Burnett achieved her PhD degree at the University of California, Los Angeles in the US. Since then she has held different postdoctoral positions in Canada, France and the US. In 2016, she joined the “Laboratoire de Linguistique Formelle” at the CNRS where she works as a research scientist.


Project: Formal Models of Social Meaning and Identity Construction Through Language (SMIC)
Researcher: Heather Burnett
Host Institution: Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), France
ERC Funding: € 1.4 million for five years


There is safety in numbers

Like in real life, many of the questions researchers investigate are riddled with uncertainty. Computational scientists usually deal with this by visualising and analysing all the possible solutions to a problem, hoping to find the correct one among them. The more data one works with, however, the more unrealistic this approach becomes. Thanks to his newly awarded ERC Starting Grant, Dr. Alexandru Tomescu, from the University of Helsinki, will be able to tackle this uncertainty. His idea is to study those parts of a solution that are common to all answers to a computational problem. Theoretically, these partial solutions are “safe”; they contain information that is likely correct.

Experimentally this approach is already in use, but Dr. Tomescu will be the first to tackle it analytically. His work will be particularly useful for analysing DNA sequencing data, as this technology moves from the lab to medical diagnosis. Dr Tomescu’s career to date has had a truly international flavour. He completed his undergraduate studies in Computer Science at the University of Bucharest, and his PhD at the University of Udine in Italy. He collaborated with the University of Primorska in Slovenia, where he also briefly worked as an Erasmus exchange teacher. He has also worked with TU Berlin, University of Stockholm and Pennsylvania State University in the USA.


Project: Safe and Complete Algorithms for Bioinformatics (SAFEBIO)
Researcher: Alexandru Tomescu
Host Institution: University of Helsinki, Finland
ERC Funding: € 1.5 million for five years


Deciphering mitochondria’s defences

In mammalian cells genetic information is stored in two compartments: in the nucleus and in the mitochondria. DNA in mitochondria, just like in the nucleus, must be faithfully copied and mistakes lead to formation of DNA lesions. Persistence of these DNA lesions leads to genomic instability and different as well as to normal aging process. Because of its location within the cell, mitochondrial DNA is subjected to a constant attack by the molecules containing oxygen that can cause damage. As a result, mitochondria have a robust DNA repair mechanism, a set of enzymes called “mitochondrial repairosome.” The exact organisation of this defence mechanism is not yet well understood.

Dr Michal Szymański from University of Gdańsk in Poland aims to provide fundamental insights into the assembly, composition, activities and structures of human mitochondrial repairosome. Understanding the basic principles controlling DNA repair in human mitochondria will have a significant impact on biomedical research and will be pivotal for dissecting molecular basis for ageing, cancer and mitochondrial diseases.


Project: Dissecting the mechanism of DNA repair in human mitochondria (MitoRepairosome)
Researcher: Michał Szymański
Host Institution: University of Gdańsk, Poland
ERC Funding: € 1.5 million for five years

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