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In only three years’ time, Dr Jan Tkač went from being the first ERC grantee in Slovakia to obtaining the “2015 Scientist of the Year” award. His research in the field of glyconomics could emerge as a turning point for the diagnosis of cell-related diseases.
Why do so many diabetes patients develop kidney disease, and how can we improve prevention? EU-funded research has examined insulin-related processes at play in impaired renal function — and it may have found a way to protect key cells that help to filter our blood.
The use of biomass from plants as a renewable energy source is not new. Yet surprisingly, the positive net economic and environmental benefits of biomass energy exist only on paper. This is about to change thanks to the largest experimental tree plantation in the world, which takes place in East Flanders. Professor Reinhart Ceulemans and his team are working to get the numbers needed to inform evidence-based decisions on the role of renewables in future energy policies.
Almost 842 million people worldwide are chronically undernourished according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The world faces huge challenges if it is to achieve food security for a global population predicted to reach 9 billion by 2050. With ERC help, Professor Malcolm Bennett of the UK’s University of Nottingham is trying to improve crop yields through better understanding of roots and the way they grow.
Sponges seem an unlikely source for innovation, yet they may hold the key to new nanotechnologies, innovative optical devices and new ways of regrowing human bone and preventing bone disease. Difficult to believe? Not for Werner E.G. Müller. In the BIOSILICA project, he and his team are developing ways to adapt the complex processes that natural glassy sponges use to build their wondrous biosilica structures for use in biodegradable implants that would facilitate bone healing after surgery or fractures.
In Bratislava, the team of Dr Ján Tkáč is developing the weapons to fight back in a cellular ‘cold war’ by using new early-detection technologies – helped by the first ERC grant awarded in Slovakia. Glycans are sugar molecules that carry the information human cells need to stay healthy and fight infections. Information rich, and with sophisticated storage and coding commands, they are a vital early-warning system for triggering an organism’s natural defensive systems at the first sign of attack. So it is not surprising that infectious pathogens such as bacteria and viruses, and cell-related diseases such as cancers, have developed subterfuges to bypass this first line of defence. For example, HIV viruses do this by cracking the glycan’s molecular code, and stealing its identity – allowing the pathogen to go unrecognised by cells until the infection is well advanced.
By combining computer science and molecular biology, researchers have been able to work on a programmable biological computer that in the future may navigate within the human body, diagnosing diseases and administering treatments. This is what Professor Ehud Shapiro and his team have called a ‘Doctor in a cell’.
People have been producing and using silk for more than 5 000 years, but now – thanks to an ERC Advanced Grant – Professor Fritz Vollrath is increasing our understanding of this material. His research could help to improve existing industrial polymers and develop new silk industries, adapted to the local conditions and resources in Asia, Africa and South America.
The DOFOCO project aims to better understand how forests can help lessen the effects of global warming, by bringing together advanced models and data from the life and earth sciences. Such research takes an additional dimension this year, in the context of the United Nations International Year of Forests 2011.