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12-03-2019

By the end of 2018, the ERC had funded over 9,000 projects. More than 9,000 incredible stories, all worth telling.
Here we showcase some highlights from the last year:

Engineered crop plants to fight drought

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Ana Caño-Delgado has been studying plant steroid hormones, known as brassinosteroids, in Arabidopsis Thaliana for more than 15 years. In 2018 she discovered that modifying brassinosteroid signalling in the plant vascular system, plants increase their resistance to water scarcity and grow normally. In the past, her team succeeded to enhance plant drought tolerance, but due to the complex action of brassinosteroids, these plants were much smaller than those not modified. Her strategy is the first to improve hydric stress resistance in plants without interfering with their development and growth. Researchers have started trials on cereals and tomatoes in order to find solutions to increase the tolerance of crops to drought, one of the most important threats to agriculture today.

IDRICA, Ana Caño-Delgado, Center for Research in Agricultural Genomics (CRAG), Spain 


A new twist in the history of the evolution of human species

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Collaboration between three ERC grantees led to a major breakthrough in palaeontology. Analysing the genome of a bone fragment found in Russia, scientists discovered that it belonged to a hominid, who lived roughly 90,000 years ago and had a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father. Neanderthals and Denisovans are two extinct human groups that were replaced by modern humans around 40,000 years ago. Neanderthals are traditionally thought to have inhabited western Eurasia whereas Denisovans settled in eastern Eurasia. Finding a first-generation Neanderthal–Denisovan offspring in south Siberia suggests that their geographic distributions were much wider than previously understood and that crossing between Late Pleistocene hominids was probably quite frequent

100 Archaic Genomes, Svante Pääbo, Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science, Germany
FINDER, Katerina Douka, Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science, Germany
PALAEOCHRON, Tom Higham, Oxford University, United Kingdom


Cancer – know your enemy

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© C. Blanpain, ULB

Skin cancer is the most frequent cancer worldwide and breast cancer is the most frequent cancer in women. The research team led by Cédric Blanpain defined for the first time tumour growth phases during cancer progression and identified the types of tumour cells causing metastases in skin and breast cancer. Supported by the ERC, Blanpain was able to identif y at least seven different types of tumour cells and demonstrated that they are not all functionally equivalent and equally metastatic. This discovery will have major implications for the diagnosis, prognosis and therapy of cancer patients.

EXPAND, Cedric Blanpain, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium

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A new theory aims to get a grip on the multiverse

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ERC grantee Thomas Hertog co-authored the last paper on cosmolog y by the late Prof. Stephen Hawking in which they propose a new theory for the origin of the universe. Their study deals with the old multiverse hypothesis, which predicts that the Big Bang created an infinite number of universes, each with its own set of physical laws. The new theory puts the multiverse hypothesis on a more rigorous theoretical (mathematical) footing. Hawking and Hertog found that this limits the number of possible universes, hence making an observational test of the theory more feasible. In their work they make use of the holographic principle in string theory which says that, fundamentally, the physical properties of certain 3D spaces can be mathematically completely described in terms of a projection on a 2D surface.

HoloQosmos, Thomas Hertog, Catholic University Leuven, Belgium

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Forensic architecture methods to visualise evidence related to crimes

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@Forensic Architecture and Anderson Acoustics, 2017

Eyal Weizman developed a novel set of research techniques to analyse violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by examining their effects on built environment. Combining architecture, journalism, animation, 3D modelling and filmmaking his Forensic Architecture Agency provides unique, solid, and clear evidence about incidents that other methods of investigation cannot engage with. His team focused on violent events around the world, including the UK, the Mediterranean area, Indonesia, Syria, Palestine and A mazonia. Results of these works were exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Arts in Barcelona, the Victoria and Albert Museum and Tate Britain in London. The project received the European Cultural Foundation Award for Culture and was nominated to the prestigious Turner Prize 2018.

FAMEC, Eyal Weizman, Goldsmiths' College, United Kingdom

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How do colour patterns in birds develop?

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The eyes in peacock feathers dazzle us, spots and stripes help us identif y different species of birds and often the shapes and patterns on these animals wow us as much as their colours. ERC Starting grantee Marie Manceau published a paper this year explaining how birds get their colouring patterns, a process made more complicated by the fact that it can change in time. She and her team discovered that the process is two-stepped, dependent both on the genetic peculiarities of the animal and on the structural landmarks of the bird’s body, such as the muscles and bos.

COLOUR PATTERN, Marie Manceau, Collège de France, France


Vibrio cholerae: a very versatile pathogen

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In the 1800s, cholera was the subject of one of science’s most riveting investigative cases. But ever since John Snow understood the important link between cholera and dirty water, scientists have continued to find ways in which Vibrio cholerae, a species of bacteria commonly found in aquatic habitats, infects humans. One of these researchers, Melanie Blokesch, who studies the ecology and evolution of this bacterium, has found that Vibrio cholerae resists digestion by predators in its natural environment, while continuing to replicate, making it a dangerous inhabitant of its ecosystem. These insights could shed light on the transmission of cholera, which remains one of the world’s most debilitating pandemic diseases.

VIR4ENV & CholeraIndex, Melanie Blokesch, École Politechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland


Microplastic pollution: a global threat for seas and soils

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In the last few years, the scientific community has become aware of the damaging effects of pollution from small plastic pieces – less than a millimetre long. Two studies by ERC grantees warn about the long-term negative impact of microplastics on marine and terrestrial ecosystems throughout the world. According to a study, to which Erik van Sebille has contributed, the level of pollution in the Mediterranean Sea compairs to the highest ever measured in the South China sea.

Microplastic pollution, however, is not only a threat for seas and oceans. Matthias Rillig found evidence that land-based pollution may strongly impact the terrestrial geochemical and biophysical environment

Gradual_Change, Matthias Rillig, Free University of Berlin, Germany
TOPIOS, Erik van Sebille, Utrecht University, Netherlands

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Differential rotation of stars

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Stars can rotate faster at the equator than at the poles – as the Sun does. This is known as differential rotation and can be seen in the motion of sunspots. Studying the seismic properties of the Sun, researchers found that the effect might extend into its core. Jørgen Christensen-Dalsgaard and his group used the Kepler space telescope to investigate a group of Sun-like stars. They have concluded that several stars do indeed seem to have equators that spin faster than their poles - usually twice as fast - and none of them indicated the opposite pattern

ASTERISK, Jørgen Christensen-Dalsgaard, Aarhus University, Denmark


Robot chemists and a new fast charging battery

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Leroy Cronin and his team have created a robot chemist that could potentially revolutionise the way molecules are discovered, thanks to machine-learning techniques. This could lead to lower costs for synthesising new molecules for drugs and new materials and polymers for high-tech applications. But this was not the only breakthrough the team realised in 2018. They also discovered a new type of liquid battery that is ten times more energy-dense than existing models. Refuelling electric cars could be reduced to a few minutes, by literally pouring new charged electrolytes into the tank, as for petrol cars. The battery’s higher energy density allows it to store more power in less liquid, making the commercial application to cars viable.

SMART-POM, Leroy Cronin, University of Glasgow, United Kingdom

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Defying the Blood Brain Barrier

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ERC Starting grantee Gianni Ciofani created the first artificial working model of the blood brain barrier (BBB), using anotechnologies. The BBB is an important line of defence the body uses to protect its thinking organ, the brain, against contamination from toxins that may flow in other parts of the body. The model will allow researchers to understand how to cross this natural barrier with specific drugs in order to treat tumours and conditions like Parkinson’s disease and Multiple Sclerosis.

SLaMM, Gianni Ciofani, Fondazione Italiana Istituto di Tecnologia (IIT), Italy


Imitation at the basis of teamwork

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Imitation plays a central role in the way individuals interact. It is prominent in parent–child interactions and in cultural practices such as music and dance. Imitation is key also in joint actions, where two or more individuals – for example, fellow sport team members - coordinate their actions in space and time in order to achieve a shared goal. Collaboration between two ERC grantees led to a better understanding of this phenomenon. They showed that imitation occurs not only between individuals, but also between teams. This demonstrates that joint action goals can override close links between perception and action that normally form the basis of imitation and yield new insights into teaching and innovation.

SOMICS, Günther Knoblich, Central European University, Hungary
JAXPERTISE, Natalie Sebanz, Central European University, Hungary