Published: 01.02.13

Research success by the dozen - part two

Thanks to twelve outstanding professors, over 33 million Swiss francs from the European Research Council (ERC) will flow into ETH Zurich. They all receive an Advanced Grant, with which the ERC supports projects by top-flight researchers. ETH Life presents the winning projects in two parts.

Franziska Schmid
Top (from left): Ulrike Kutay, Dani Or, Rahul Pandharipande, bottom (from left): Timothy Richmond, Aldo Steinfeld and Olivier Voinnet (Images: ETH Zurich)
Top (from left): Ulrike Kutay, Dani Or, Rahul Pandharipande, bottom (from left): Timothy Richmond, Aldo Steinfeld and Olivier Voinnet (Images: ETH Zurich) (large view)

Each of the successful applicants stands to receive up to 2.5 million euros for the project submitted in the next five years. After ETH Life presented the first six grantees on Wednesday , here are the second six in alphabetical order:

Understanding the nuclear envelope better

Ulrike Kutay’s research focuses on the dynamics of the nuclear envelope. With her ERC project, the professor from the Institute of Biochemistry is looking to research hitherto unexplained basic aspects of the formation, function and dynamics of the nuclear envelope more effectively. One question is as follows: how are proteins used to facilitate the communication between the genome and other cell components? Dynamic changes in the cell nucleus are also a prerequisite for the mother cell to be able to pass on genetic information to the daughter cells. The researcher thus hopes to be able explain the mechanical causes of particular genetic disorders that defective proteins trigger in the nuclear envelope.

Diversity in the soil

American Dani Or has been a professor of environmental physics at the Institute of Terrestrial Ecosystems since 2008. His ERC project is concerned with researching the microbial diversity in the soil. Professor Or is looking to clarify how environmental conditions (such as the internal organisation of the soil water) preserve the ecological and functional diversity in the soil. “The ERC grant gives us the possibility of establishing a team and studying complex biophysical interactions in the soil systematically,” explains a delighted Or. The first step will be to develop an individual-based model platform to simulate the life of microbes in the soil. This “virtual soil microcosm” will enable the systematic research of the microbial activity under different environmental conditions and climatic scenarios. The aim of the project is the quantitative prediction of the effects of biophysical soil processes on water quality, pollutant dynamics in the soil and global biochemical circuits.

Secrets of algebraic geometry

Forty-three-year-old Rahul Pandharipande is a professor of mathematics specialising in algebraic geometry – a branch of mathematics which, as the name suggests, combines algebra with geometry. The field thus occupies a central role in mathematics as there are direct links to number theory, representation theory and topology. At the end of the twentieth century, fundamental connections between the algebraic geometry of moduli and the path integrals in quantum field theory were identified. Today, algebraic geometry also uses insights and techniques that are known from mathematics and physics. The moduli of curves, areas and K3 surfaces are to be examined in the project. The ERC grant will now give the research a major boost, Pandharipande is convinced: “Solid funding is crucial for the high quality and ultimately the success of a research group.”

Chromatin as a key element

“I am especially delighted with the ERC grant because I am retiring at the end of this year and this guarantees the continuation of my lab’s work. I myself have got the opportunity to conduct more ‘hands-on’ research,” says Timothy Richmond, who has been a professor at the Institute of Molecular Biology since 1987 and researches and teaches biophysics. His ERC project is devoted to chromatin – a compact complex of nucleic acid and special proteins, the material that chromosomes are made of. Chromatin is also the substance that serves as the carrier of hereditary epigenetic information through the modification of its components. Through its hierarchical structure, chromatin can be transformed into more or less strongly condensed forms and is thus a key element in the regulation of processes in the cell nucleus. On the one hand, the ERC project should explain the action mechanisms of the chromatin remodelling factors more effectively and on the other hand facilitate new insights into the chromatin structure. Both are of enormous importance for future developments in the field of modern medicine.

Sustainable fuels

Aldo Steinfeld from Uruguay has been a professor of renewable energy sources since 2007 and runs the Solar Technology Laboratory at the Paul Scherrer Institute. His ERC research project is concerned with producing clean fuels from water (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2) and solar energy efficiently. The aim is for solar synthesis gas (syngas), which primarily consists of hydrogen (H2) and carbon monoxide (CO), to be processed into liquid hydrocarbons (e.g. diesel, kerosene and gasoline). The basic idea involves splitting H2O and CO2 at high temperatures with the aid of a thermochemical process. For this metal-oxide redox cycle, however, new materials, structures and solar-reactor concepts with improved heat transfer and fluid mechanics have to be developed. “As the next step, we now need to recruit talented doctoral students and postdocs for the project. As the production of sustainable fuels is a pressing global problem, I’m convinced we’ll find highly motivated, top-class candidates,” explains Steinfeld.

microRNA in entire organisms

Forty-one-year-old Olivier Voinnet, a professor of RNA biology, is no novice when it comes to ERC grants, already receiving an ERC Starting Grant back in 2008. The aim of his current ERC project is to study miRNA in entire organisms, taking temporal and spatial aspects into account. The research team uses the root system of the model plant wall Arabidopsis thaliana to study the central protein of miRNA function, Argonaute1 (AGO1), in whole tissues. With specific genetic changes, protein isolations and the profiling of RNAs that act in certain cells through AGO1, the researchers are looking to obtain a more precise picture of the function of short RNAs. The aim is to understand the interaction of microRNA, RNA silencing and the metabolic pathways better. Not only might RNA silencing be used to improve crops; it could also be applied in medicine. Voinnet sees a unique opportunity in his second ERC grant: “The grant means I have got the complete freedom to plumb the boundaries of my scientific field. Moreover, some of the best RNA researchers in the world are in Switzerland – perhaps it is time to join forces on a national level.”

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