Highest European recognition for early career researchers awarded to three Göttingen Campus academics

September 05, 2023

The European Research Council (ERC) is funding the three Göttingen Campus academics Hauke Hillen, Marieke Oudelaar, and Saskia Limbach with an ERC Starting Grant of about 1.5 million euros each for a period of five years.

How do the cell’s power plants produce proteins? (UMG)

Hauke Hillen, head of the research group “Structure and Function of Molecular Machines” in the Institute of Cell Biochemistry at the University Medical Center Göttingen (UMG), independent research group leader at the MPI for Multidisciplinary Sciences, and member of the Cluster of Excellence “Multiscale Bioimaging: from Molecular Machines to Networks of Excitable Cells” (MBExC), will use the funding to explore how the power plants of the cells – the mitochondria – make proteins.

“An important step in protein production is to copy genetic information encoded in the mitochondrial DNA into RNA, which contains the blueprints for proteins. This RNA is then processed further before the proteins can be produced based on it. We want to investigate the entire life cycle of mitochondrial RNA – from its formation to its degradation and we are primarily using cryo-electron microscopy,” Hillen explains. “This state-of-the-art method allows us to visualize the ‘nanomachines’ that are involved in the RNA life cycle in the mitochondria with almost atomic resolution. For this, thousands of snapshots of these molecules are taken from a wide variety of viewing directions and finally combined to create an overall picture. With the help of this method, we can follow the processes in the mitochondria in great detail.” The researchers hope this research will elucidate the molecular mechanisms of energy production in human cells, which may in the future lead to new therapeutic approaches for diseases based on understanding the malfunction of these processes.

The biochemist’s work has been supported since 2022 by the  Lower Saxony Ministry of Science and Culture with the funding program “Stay Inspired: European Excellence for Lower Saxony” from funds from the “ZUKUNFT.NIEDERSACHSEN” program. The aim of this start-up funding was to acquire an ERC Starting Grant. “I warmly congratulate Professor Hauke Hillen and his team on the ERC Starting Grant. They have succeeded in a highly competitive competition of outstanding European researchers,” says Falko Mohrs, Lower Saxony’s Minister for Science and Culture. “With the support of our ‘Stay Inspired’ program, we as a state were able to make an important contribution to the successful development of the outstanding proposal. The recognition and funding by the European Research Council underlines the innovative strength of our research landscape in Lower Saxony.”

How is our genome organized and regulated? (MPI-NAT)

The Lise Meitner research group leader Marieke Oudelaar, together with her team at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Multidisciplinary Sciences, explores how living cells become specialists with specific functions: red blood cells supply our body with oxygen, immune cells fend off pathogens, muscles enable us to fetch a ball. To this end, the molecular biologist investigates how genes are switched on and off at the molecular level and how this process is tightly regulated. In fact, all cells of an organism contain exactly the same genetic information, which is encoded in the genes in our DNA. But different cell types activate only those genes they need for their respective task. How the process of gene activation takes place is an intensively researched field with many questions still unanswered.

The DNA of a single human cell would be about two meters long when stretched out to its full length. To fit into the tiny cell nucleus, it has to fold up into three-dimensional structures. Oudelaar’s team elucidates how the activity of genes is related to the spatial organization of DNA in cells. “The 3D structures influence whether the genes in the DNA can be activated by signals,” the research group leader explains. With her team, she also examines how gene regulatory elements interact with each other at specific locations on the genome, even though they are sometimes hundreds of thousands of base pairs apart.

Oudelaar’s group will use the funding to pursue new approaches over the next five years to identify proteins that are coupled to such gene regulatory elements. “We want to study the function of these proteins in living cells by removing them from the nucleus and adding them back. In this way, we can learn how these proteins control how cells differentiate,” says the molecular biologist. These findings are not only important for deciphering how our genome is organized and regulated. The scientists also hope that their findings will help to better understand the molecular basis of genetic diseases allowing to treat them one day.

Printers’ widows in early modern Germany (University of Göttingen)

The historian Saskia Limbach at the University of Göttingen has received a Starting Grant for her project "Widows in the Growing Print Industry, c. 1550-1700 (WidowsPrint)". The funding will enable Limbach and her team to investigate the effects of the rapid economic change triggered by the printing press on the rights and agency of widows. The advent of the printing press spurred crucial intellectual, economic and social developments in early modern Europe. In Germany, the print industry grew faster than in most places and – what has often gone unnoticed – there was a conspicuously high number of widows involved. Yet the exact nature of the industry’s growth, and women’s contribution to it, is extremely difficult to reconstruct because the print runs of different editions of books are a mystery.

WidowsPrint will significantly break new ground by filling in these missing pieces. Based on a large array of different archival sources, the project will systematically record all known print runs to create a diverse and representative dataset for early modern Germany. Thus, we can establish which factors determined the size of the print run of an edition and survey the total output of individual print shops. The project will also analyse how widows' economic agency changed in the 16th and 17th century as book production progressively moved from single workshops to larger family enterprises.

“A major focus of the project is on reconstructing the professional networks of women book printers, especially their relationships with publishers who financed entire editions and thus increasingly controlled the book production," says Limbach. "To this end, we will use innovative methods, including new image recognition software, which will make it possible to identify the exact same images in different books. These could only have been produced by printers sharing wood blocks or printing plates. This will reveal the previously elusive networks of women printers.”

(A joint press release of the UMG, the University of Göttingen, and the MPI-NAT)

About the ERC Starting Grants

The European Commission established the ERC in 2007 to fund outstanding junior scientists with innovative research projects. The ERC Starting Grants are open to researchers who have worked in science for two to seven years after obtaining their doctorate. In this year’s highly competitive competition for ERC Starting Grants, the ERC awarded 400 Starting Grants, with funding totaling 628 million euros. Funding was awarded to 14.8 percent of the applications submitted.

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