While women inherit two X chromosomes, the expressions of one of them is shut down during embryonic development. Men have one X chromosome and one Y chromosome. The switching off of women’s second X chromosome is thought to compensate for the presence of only one X in males versus two in females, to balance for X-linked gene products between the sexes. X-chromosome inactivation is also one of the clearest examples of what epigenetic mechanisms do to our genetic material: the DNA of the genes on the X is still present but not actively expressed or needed. Prof. Edith Heard was awarded ERC grants to understand the intricate processes behind the phenomenon, with unexpected results that changed the way gene regulation is now looked at.
In 2012, 2.8 million people in the EU were diagnosed with cancer. It is the second most common cause of death in the Union – three out of 10 deaths for men, and two out of 10 deaths for women – a figure that is expected to rise due to the ageing European population. Dr Danijela Matic Vignjevic’s STARLIN project is using ERC funding to understand how normal cells become cancerous and spread.