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Scientists Secure Prestigious European Funding for Pioneering Research

News feed for Trinity College Dublin.

Feb 01, 2011

Two of Trinity College Dublin’s leading scientists, Professor Luke O’Neill and Ken Wolfe, have each been successful in securing special funding from the prestigious European Research Council (ERC).

The ERC is the first pan-European funding organisation for frontier research and funds senior research leaders ('ERC Advanced Grants') and younger, early-career top researchers ('ERC Starting Grants').   As well-established researchers with notable track records, Professor O’Neill and Professor Wolfe have been chosen as part of the ‘Advanced Grants’ programme, in which €590million in grants is being provided to 266 leading scientists around the globe to pursue innovative, ‘blue sky’ research.

ERC is the newest component of the EU's Seventh Research Framework Programme.

Professor O’Neill, Professor of Biochemistry at the School of Biochemistry and Immunology, received an ERC grant allocation of €3.48 million to assist with his pioneering research into the immune system.

Professor Wolfe, Professor of Genome Evolution at the Smurfit Institute of Genetics and the School of Genetics and Microbiology at Trinity, received €1.5 million in funding under the ERC Advanced Grants programme which will go towards research on the evolution of yeast species.

Both scientists are also funded by Science Foundation Ireland.

About the Research

Professor Wolfe’s research looks at how chromosomes become rearranged, on timescales both as short as a few hours and as long as many millions of years.

“There are situations when the structure of chromosomes can change dramatically. One important example is in many types of cancer.  Tumours consist of fast-growing cells whose chromosomes are often dramatically rearranged compared to the normal set of human chromosomes.  Their fast growth is the result of chromosomes being broken and the pieces joined back together in a different order.  If an important regulatory gene is disrupted by this process, the cell can lose control and start dividing rapidly,” explained Professor Wolfe.

Professor Wolfe is studying the mechanisms by which chromosomes become rearranged, using yeast species as a simple system in which to work out the details.  Yeasts are single-celled fungi that contain only about 1/300th the amount of DNA in a human cell.  Because they are widely used in the food and drink industries, the complete DNA sequences of dozens of different yeast strains and species have already been worked out.  Professor Wolfe’s team has analysed the data and discovered that yeast chromosomes are prone to some unusual types of rearrangement that have not been detected before, in any species, so the mechanisms that cause them are unknown.

“In this ERC-funded project we aim to work out how these rearrangements occur.  It is likely that the mechanisms will be conserved between yeast and human cells, so our work is relevant to fundamental research on cancer,” said Professor Wolfe.

Professor Luke O'Neill's ERC-funded programme will allow him to build a team of postdoctoral fellows and graduate students to work on a project called MicroInnate.  The study will involve an exploration of the role of microRNAs in a particular branch of the immune system called innate immunity. 

MicroRNAs have emerged as key fine-tuners of several biological processes.  They were first found in the process of development in the microscopic nematode worm.  Subsequently they have been implicated in the control of many biological processes in all organisms examined, including in the immune system.  The field of microRNAs in immunity is a frontier area, and Professor O'Neill made an important contribution in 2010, publishing a paper in Nature Immunology demonstating a key role for miR-21 in the control of Toll-like receptors, central proteins in innate immunity and inflammation.  The ERC programme will allow Prof O'Neill to further this work and will involve the genetic manipulation of selected miRNAs in order to determine their role in inflammatory diseases. 

“We are only at the beginning of our understanding of microRNAs in immunity.  I am very excited by the prospect that their dysregulation may lie at the heart of inflammatory diseases and my research programme aims to explore this possibility,” said Professor O'Neill.

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| communications@tcd.ie | Last updated: February 3, 2011