DKFZ/EMBL/Heidelberg University: two ERC Synergy Grants for Heidelberg
With its “Synergy Grants”, the ERC supports small teams of scientists working together to solve complex research problems, bringing together different techniques and skills across disciplines.
Genes are team players. Changes in a genetic make-up often have an effect on the activity of a large number of other genes – with far-reaching consequences: “The interplay of very many gene activities determines the identity of a cell and ultimately decides whether, for example, a nerve cell or a white blood cell is formed – with largely identical genetic material,” explains Michael Boutros from the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ).
With “DECODE”, researchers from three Heidelberg institutions now want to prove that such analyses are possible. The European Research Council (ERC) is funding this ambitious project with a “Synergy Grant”. In addition to Boutros, Wolfgang Huber from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), Jan Lohmann from the University of Heidelberg and Oliver Stegle from the DKFZ and EMBL are involved. The strength of the DECODE team is that it combines excellent expertise in single cell analysis and genome engineering with top-class bioinformatics.
The team will initially focus on two model systems: the intestine of the fruit fly Drosophila and the root tip of arabidopsis – the botanists’ most popular research object. Using the CRISPR-Cas gene scissors, the researchers hope to switch off around 3000 selected genes, either individually or in pairs – and observe what happens: “Today we are able to analyze the RNA molecules at the level of individual cells. This enables us to recognize which changes in the activity of all genes our respective intervention has triggered,” explains Michael Boutros.
The researchers hope to understand how the genetic circuit diagrams change in the course of the development and differentiation of a tissue or how they react to an external stimulus such as a toxin. “Drosophila and Arabidopsis have already been studied in detail and have compact genomes, making them particularly suitable for us. Our project is also paving the way for comparable studies on human cells,” said Oliver Stegle. “If we understand disorders in the genetic circuit diagram of cells that occur in inflammations or cancer, for example, this could open up completely new possibilities for the development of new therapeutics.
The “Genetics of Individuality” (IndiGene) project aims to study and characterise at various levels the origins of variation that contribute to different phenotypes and thus to individuality in complex vertebrates. The researchers also want to study the role played by the environment and chance as well as the degree to which this is anchored via genetic mechanisms. The research, which will be conducted in a comprehensive twin study on the Medaka fish model organism, will include an examination of genetic, ecological and stochastic factors. Members of the IndiGene team include Prof. Wittbrodt, who directs the Animal Physiology / Developmental Biology Research Group at the Centre for Organismal Studies, and Prof. Dr Ewan Birney of the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI-EMBL) in Cambridge (Great Britain). The project is being conducted within the framework of HEiKA, the Heidelberg Karlsruhe Strategic Partnership between Heidelberg University and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), together with researchers from the KIT. It is funded with approximately 6.3 million euros.