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Two Lund University biologists awarded ERC Starting Grants

Courtney Stairs and Sissel Sjöberg (Photo: Emma Wallenlöw/Anders Örtegren)
Courtney Stairs and Sissel Sjöberg (Photo: Emma Wallenlöw/Anders Örtegren)

Biology researchers Courtney Stairs and Sissel Sjöberg have been awarded just over SEK 15 million each in starting grants from the European Research Council, ERC. Their five-year projects will study marine interactions between microorganisms and complex migratory bird behaviour.

Congratulations Courtney! Can you tell us a little bit about your project?

- If we look through a microscope at a single drop of water from a pond, we can see thousands of different unicellular organisms interacting with each other. Some of these interactions are hostile, such as when amoebae eat bacteria. However, in harsh environments that lack oxygen, for instance at the bottom of the ocean or in lakes, certain microorganisms must cooperate and share nutrients in symbiosis to survive. My project TANGO2 will investigate the cellular and genetic characteristics that allow microbes to share resources and will explore the frequency of these interactions in the natural world.

What do you hope to achieve?

- A side effect of our changing climate is the rapidly decreasing supply of oxygen in aquatic environments, which results in a deteriorating habitat for animals and plants. To understand the effects these hypoxic zones will have on future aquatic systems, it is necessary to study how microbial metabolic activities can contribute to the maintenance of these low-oxygen zones.

What does this grant mean to you?

- Receiving this grant is such an honour, and will enable me to build a multidisciplinary research environment here in Lund. I will be able to recruit a researcher and a PhD student who are interested in working in this exciting area of microbiological research.

Congratulations Sissel! Can you tell us a little bit about your project?

- My project is about the behaviors that make it possible for birds to move tens of thousands of kilometers between their breeding and wintering grounds every year, and the possibilities and limitations of these behaviors. With the help of new technology that allows us to follow birds throughout their migration, we have learned an incredible amount over the last decade about where and when birds migrate. We have also realized that birds are capable of much more than we might understand purely through theory - they fly farther and at higher altitudes than we previously thought possible. So much of my project is about understanding adaptive behaviors that birds have developed that allow them to get around physiological constraints.

What do you hope to achieve?

- I hope we will understand how birds, with the smallest weighing less than ten grams, behave when managing to cross oceans and continents twice a year. I also hope that we will understand why the birds behave the way they do, and if it limits them in any way. I hope to understand how a bird can fly for several days straight and what these extreme flights entail.

What does the grant mean to you?

- It means a lot, of course. This is an opportunity to take the first step towards starting my own research group and establishing my own research. I also think it's a very fun project and it will be exciting to see what we actually find.

ERC starting grants