ERC Starting Grants: historic triple triumph for the IMP

The European Research Council (ERC) has chosen three IMP group leaders to receive funding under the EU’s Horizon Programme. Moritz Gaidt, Diana Pinheiro, and Joris van der Veeken, have all been awarded Starting Grants to fund their research efforts over the next five years. With this historic win, the 15-strong IMP faculty now sports 13 ERC grantees.

Today, The ERC announced the awarding of 400 Starting Grants to promising young scientists across Europe. A total of 2696 proposals were submitted, amd the overall success rate reached 14.8 percent. With a success rate of 58 percent in a previous funding cycle, the IMP was among the leading host-institutions in Europe; and a new generation of scientists now continues to build on this exceptional performance: all three most recently recruited IMP group leaders were selected among the awardees. The ERC will support their research in immunology and developmental biology.

Moritz Gaidt

Successful pathogens use virulence factors to inhibit immune defences. To counteract this phenomenon, host guard proteins monitor the integrity of pathways (‘guardees’) that are attacked by virulence factors, such that inhibition of the guardee activates guard-driven immunity. Rather than detecting microbial components directly, guards are activated by sensing the activity of virulent microbes.

While guard immunity is common in plants, only a few mammalian guard-pathways are known to science. Moritz Gaidt and colleagues have recently described the MORC3-MRE pathway, the first mammalian guard-sensing pathway that recognises the virulence-associated activity of viruses to induce a protective response.

With support from the ERC, Moritz Gaidt and his lab will use genetic approaches in human cells and mice to reveal novel components and molecular mechanisms of the MORC3-MRE pathway and investigate its role in homeostasis and immunity in vivo.

With a combination of genetic screens, genomics, and biochemical approaches, the lab will test the novel concept of guard-immunity in mammalian immune defences. This research will generate new insights into molecular mechanisms of pathogen recognition and will broaden our understanding of host-pathogen interactions.

Diana Pinheiro

As an embryo grows, its cells divide, diversify, and position themselves in the right place at the right time to ensure healthy development. Ultimately, these cells sculpt the body axes that drive subsequent development steps.

Diana Pinheiro’s research explores how mechanical forces and signalling molecules known as morphogens interact to control embryonic development. The project aims to reveal how a group of morphogens coordinate developmental processes across vertebrate species.

Over the next five years, the lab will unravel the interplay between morphogen dynamics and mechanical properties, using zebrafish and human tissues as model systems. This is essential for understanding how morphogens contribute to the formation of pattern and shape in living organisms.

Using biophysics and developmental biology, they will employ advanced tools such as live-cell signalling reporters, optogenetics, and specialised models. This research will advance our understanding of embryonic development and has implications for organoid engineering, regenerative medicine, and evolutionary biology.

Joris van der Veeken

The vertebrate adaptive immune system anticipates encounters with a wide variety of pathogens, using a repertoire of antigen receptors. Although this system offers a high level of protection against invaders, it can also backfire and attack the self in a process known as autoimmunity. The immune system relies on subsets of regulatory T cells to prevent harmful responses to both self and non-self antigens.

In the intestine, the adaptive immune system must also avoid exaggerated responses to food and numerous harmless microbes. Joris van der Veeken and his lab aim to uncover the mechanisms responsible for maintaining immune tolerance in the intestine.

Regulatory T cells play distinct roles in immune regulation, but their functions have remained unclear due to a lack of effective markers. In the next five years, the researchers will use innovative genetic tracing and protein degradation techniques to shed light on immune tolerance in the intestine. They will investigate gene transcription in regulatory T cells, and how these cells interact with neighbouring cells in their environment. Additionally, they plan to study how the signals that precede and promote regulatory T cell differentiation shape the developing intestinal immune system.

This multifaceted approach promises to provide novel insights into the mechanisms that uphold intestinal immune tolerance.

About the ERC

The European Research Council (ERC), set up by the European Union in 2007, is the premier European funding mechanism for excellent frontier research. It funds creative researchers of any nationality and age, to run projects based in participating countries. The ERC offers four core grant schemes: Starting Grants, Consolidator Grants, Advanced Grants and Synergy Grants. With its additional Proof of Concept Grant scheme, the ERC helps grantees to bridge the gap between their pioneering research and early phases of its commercialisation. The ERC is led by an independent governing body, the Scientific Council. Since November 2021, Maria Leptin is the President of the ERC. The overall ERC budget from 2021 to 2027 is more than 16 billion Euro, as part of the Horizon Europe programme, currently under the responsibility of European Commission Executive Vice President Margarete Vestager.

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