Six LU researchers receive ERC Starting Grants

Upper row, from the left: Paul Bourgine, Alison Gerber, Pablo Villanueva Perez. Lower row, from the left: Emma Hammarlund, Rik Ossenkoppele, Nathalie Feiner.
Upper row, from the left: Paul Bourgine, Alison Gerber, Pablo Villanueva Perez. Lower row, from the left: Emma Hammarlund, Rik Ossenkoppele, Nathalie Feiner.

Colourful common wall lizards, an innovative X-ray microscope and advanced research on Alzheimer’s, leukaemia, photographic evidence and the origin of life. Six researchers from Lund University in Sweden have been granted five-year starting grants totalling EUR 9.5 million from the ERC.

Nathalie Feiner, researcher in evolutionary biology, will focus on parallel evolution among six species of common wall lizards found in the Mediterranean region. By analysing the genes of the different reptile species, she will clarify why the lizards – which all originate from an inconspicuous brown lizard species – have developed similar glowing colours completely independent of each other.

For a five-year period, Nathalie Feiner and a research team will undertake field trips, set up breeding groups and carry out advanced laboratory analyses, using, among other things, the gene scissors technique CrispR-Cas9. All this is intended to reveal why evolution so accurately combines similar colours, forms and behaviour time and time again. Nathalie Feiner will concentrate on a specific cell type – neural crest – which is formed in the early stages of the embryo and may be the explanation as to why the different common wall lizard species have evolved in parallel.

“In the long term my research will reveal how evolutionary biology sets the rules that determine what evolution can achieve”, says Nathalie Feiner.

Pablo Villanueva Perez, associate senior lecturer in Synchrotron Radiation Physics, will develop a completely new X-ray microscope to improve the study and filming of different materials in 3D. Today this is done using microtomography (μCT) by irradiating a rotating sample with X-rays so that it is struck from different directions. In recent years the technology has been refined in step with enhancements in X-ray sources, detectors and 3D algorithms. However, one problem remains. The samples must still be rotated, which may result in them being damaged or, in the worst case, destroyed. Therefore, Pablo Villanueva Perez and a research team are to develop a new X-ray microscope that does not require rotating samples. This is to be done by splitting and manipulating X-ray beams into a number of angled light sources that illuminate the samples at the same time.

“I will use the new microscope to study fundamental processes in cellulose, which is a renewable material. I hope in the long term to develop an eco-friendly material that can replace plastic”, says Pablo Villanueva Perez.

Rik Ossenkoppele, associate senior lecturer at Clinical Memory Research, will study the protein, tau, an important marker for Alzheimer’s disease that can be detected using brain imaging techniques in a positron emission tomography (PET) camera. The aim is to find out more about how tau spreads throughout the brain and if it is possible to identify genetic and molecular factors linked with the spread of tau in order to better predict the pattern of spread. The project will also examine why certain individuals are more resistant to tau pathology than others and if there are functional, molecular and/or genetic factors that affect the process. Rik Ossenkoppele wants to enhance knowledge about the spread of tau and discover more about resistance to it. He hopes that the results can lead to the identification of new possibilities to develop drugs against Alzheimer’s disease.

“The grant means a lot to me. I get the opportunity to work on challenges in my research with a good team in this interdisciplinary project”, says Rik Ossenkoppele.

Paul Bourgine is an associate senior lecturer at Molecular Skeletal Biology and at the Wallenberg Centre for Molecular Medicine.

In Europe, over 80 million people suffer from blood disorders. Many of these diseases originate from our bones, where the constant production of blood cells is tightly orchestrated. When this process is dysregulated, an uncontrolled proliferation of blood cells can emerge and cause leukemia. The treatment of such blood cancers remains complicated, due to our limited understanding of the diseases mechanisms, as well as the lack of model to develop and test treatments.

Paul's project proposes the engineering of miniaturized human bone organs, called “human ossicles”. These ossicles display a similar structure and function to native bones, and can thus be exploited to better understand the mechanisms of blood formation, but also the emergence of cancers. Ultimately, the hope is to generate human ossicles from patient cells. Those could be used as a preclinical drug-testing platform for the development of personalized anti-cancer solutions.

Emma Hammarlund, geobiologist and researcher at the Division of Translational Cancer Research, will investigate how life could develop on our planet. The availability of oxygen has long been the prime focus for different hypotheses, however research now shows that, on the contrary, it may be a controlled lack of oxygen that is the basis for enabling multicellular organisms to develop. The paradox that multicellularity would need both low and high oxygen levels in order to live has been the subject of very little research. One idea about how animal life dramatically took off in what is known as the Cambrian explosion, is based on clues from cancer research. This is because cancer cells are very successful at creating new multicellularity, i.e. tumours – surroundings with both low and high oxygen levels. Our stem cells, those that form new tissue, are also sensitive to high oxygen levels.

“I want to understand the significance of low oxygen levels in the formation of tissue and animals’ development. If we succeeded in harnessing low oxygen levels internally in order to be able to live with high oxygen levels outside – this may fundamentally change our view of ourselves, our world and our history”, says Emma Hammarlund.

Images play a considerable role as evidence in different parts of the knowledge and legal system, but rapid technological development has changed the playing field. The expertise to use and interpret these new types of image has fallen behind and in the worst case there is a risk of a wrong verdict, fears Alison Gerber, senior lecturer in Sociology who receives EUR 1.5 million from the ERC for the project “Show and tell”.

“One extreme example is how certain countries in the pursuit of criminals use photorealistic images derived from DNA, for example from a strand of hair at a crime scene. However, the questionable reliability is seldom communicated.”

Last year’s “photo” of a black hole, which attracted a lot of attention, is an example from research. For people working in the field it was clear that the image was generated by algorithms, but it was often presented to the general public by the media as an authentic rendering.

How the growing flora of new ways to render reality such as 3D-modelling, digital animations, laser scanning and photogrammetry are to be interpreted and used as evidence may consequently be obvious to one professional group, but not to another.

Alison Gerber will primarily study how different professional groups – researchers, technicians, police officers, lawyers, the media – use these images and the significance they are ascribed. Two postdocs and two doctoral students will be employed.

The European Research Council (ERC) promotes high-quality, researcher-driven research in all fields of science. The ERC supports cutting-edge research, multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary projects and ground-breaking ideas. The ERC Starting Grant, which is aimed at early career researchers who are ready to start independent research, is currently worth up to EUR 1.5 million over a five-year period. This year, 436 European researchers will share EUR 677 million. Starting grants have been awarded to 23 researchers in Sweden this year, six of whom are at Lund University.

For more information, contact:

Nathalie Feiner, postdoc in Evolutionary Ecology
nathalie [dot] feiner [at] biol [dot] lu [dot] se

Pablo Villanueva Perez, associate senior lecturer in Synchrotron Radiation Physics
pablo [dot] villanueva [at] sljus [dot] lu [dot] se

Rik Ossenkoppele, associate senior lecturer at Clinical Memory Research
rik [dot] ossenkoppele [at] med [dot] lu [dot] se

Paul Bourgine, associate senior lecturer at Molecular Skeletal Biology and the Wallenberg Centre for Molecular Medicine
paul [dot] bourgine [at] med [dot] lu [dot] se

Emma Hammarlund, geobiologist and researcher at the Division of Translational Cancer Research
emma [dot] hammarlund [at] med [dot] lu [dot] se

Alison Gerber, senior lecturer in Sociology
alison [dot] gerber [at] soc [dot] lu [dot] se