Three Trinity researchers win European Research Council Advanced Grants

Three researchers from Trinity – Professors Jennifer McElwain, Seamus Martin and Daniel Kelly – have won highly prestigious European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grants.

These awards, announced annually and valued at approximately €2.5 million each, go to established, leading principal investigators with a significant record of research achievements over the last decade.

These three awards now bring the total number of ERC Investigator Grants awarded at Trinity under the Horizon 2020 funding programme to 44, with a total award value of €83 million. The funding supports ground-breaking projects with the potential to make major impact within a research field.

Congratulating the winners, Dr Patrick Prendergast, Provost of Trinity, said:

“It’s a great achievement for Trinity researchers to win three of these highly competitive European Research Council Advanced Grants, totalling €7.7 million. These latest awards, which will support research in the fields of botany, immunity, and bioengineering, showcase the diversity of world-leading research taking place at Trinity.

“The funding for these three projects will support Jennifer, Seamus and Daniel in delivering ambitious, impactful research projects, and in growing their teams while collaborating with others around the world. All of these things are important for Trinity to continue to compete with the very best universities in the world.”

TERRAFORM – Jennifer McElwain

Jennifer McElwain, Professor of Botany in Trinity’s School of Natural Sciences, will lead the TERRAFORM project, which aims to investigate how plant life and the evolution of plant characteristics or 'traits' over the past 300 million years has influenced large-scale processes such as the hydrological cycle and weathering.
Jennifer McElwain, Professor of Botany in Trinity’s School of Natural Sciences, will lead the TERRAFORM project, which aims to investigate how plant life and the evolution of plant characteristics or ‘traits’ over the past 300 million years has influenced large-scale processes such as the hydrological cycle and weathering.

TERRAFORM will bring together concepts and data sources from modern day ecology, paleo-Earth weathering and decomposition experiments, climate modelling and high-resolution analyses of fossil plants  to quantify land plants’ impact on the carbon, nutrient and hydrological cycles in deep-time.  TERRAFORM also aims to increase literacy in Earth System Science among a non-traditional audience via an embedded artist-in-residence programme. 

The project will study fossil plants collected from Greenland, North America, Denmark, the UK and many other countries. Exciting new experiments will be conducted in a newly established Variable Atmosphere and Light laboratory at Trinity East. The new Science Foundation Ireland and Trinity co-funded lab will simulate the climate, atmospheric and light environments of a previous Earth allowing the research team to travel back in time to undertake their experiments. 

Professor McElwain, who is the first female Advanced Grant winner based in Trinity, said:

“Terraform is a word we often associate with science fiction and the transformation of planets other than Earth. I am interested in how plants made our planet habitable over millions of years. I will use advanced grant funding from the ERC to understand the global scale processes and pathways through which plant life and plant evolution have altered or ‘terraformed’ Earth. In doing so I hope not only to elucidate our deep geological past but also to shed light on the type of plant species and the traits they possessed which had the greatest capacity to alter how water, nutrients and carbon are moved through different parts of what we call the whole Earth system. 

“We need to fully understand the past to frame human impacts on the modern Earth and to assess nature’s capacity to buffer and counter the relentless pressure humans exert on our climate system.”

DeSTRESS – Seamus Martin

Seamus Martin, Smurfit Professor of Medical Genetics in Trinity’s School of Genetics and Microbiology, will lead the DeSTRESS project, which aims to understand the troublesome “smouldering inflammation” implicated in chronic conditions, such as cancer, obesity, neuro-degeneration and diabetes.
Seamus Martin, Smurfit Professor of Medical Genetics in Trinity’s School of Genetics and Microbiology, will lead the DeSTRESS project, which aims to understand the troublesome “smouldering inflammation” implicated in chronic conditions, such as cancer, obesity, neuro-degeneration and diabetes.

In DeSTRESS, Professor Martin plans to identify molecules that sense and respond to cellular stress to drive smouldering inflammation. The funding will help his team pursue an exciting hypothesis that is likely to yield unexpected findings and open a new frontier in inflammation research. Additionally, related work may help researchers to identify molecules that could be targeted for the treatment of chronic inflammation associated with multiple diseases.

Professor Martin said:

“I am delighted and honoured to be awarded an ERC Advanced grant to explore the underlying causes of cell stress-induced Inflammation. This award is testament to the excellence of the research that PhD students and post-doctoral fellows have conducted in my laboratory over the years and builds on our previous research funded by the Irish Research Council Laureate Award programme and Science Foundation Ireland.

“Exactly how smouldering inflammation is triggered is very poorly understood at present. We suspect that persistent cellular stress, provoked by misfolded proteins and other causes, switches on specific cellular alarm systems that are instrumental in driving smouldering inflammation, but the molecules involved have yet to be identified.”  

4D-BOUNDARIES – Daniel Kelly

Daniel Kelly, Professor of Tissue Engineering in the Trinity Centre for Biomedical Engineering and a Principal Investigator at Amber, the SFI Centre for Advanced Materials, will lead the 4D-BOUNDARIES project, which will leverage emerging 3D bioprinting technologies to provide precisely controlled physical and biochemical signals to cells to engineer structurally and mechanically functional musculoskeletal tissues.
Daniel Kelly, Professor of Tissue Engineering in the Trinity Centre for Biomedical Engineering and a Principal Investigator at Amber, the SFI Centre for Advanced Materials, will lead the 4D-BOUNDARIES project, which will leverage emerging 3D bioprinting technologies to provide precisely controlled physical and biochemical signals to cells to engineer structurally and mechanically functional musculoskeletal tissues.

Damage to musculoskeletal tissues such as articular cartilage and meniscus initiates the debilitating disease of osteoarthritis (OA), a disease of the joint affecting millions of people worldwide. This has motivated the development of tissue engineering strategies that aim to grow replacement tissues in the lab that can be used to promote the functional regeneration of damaged and diseased joints.

4D-BOUNDARIES will build upon Prof. Kelly’s extensive expertise in 3D bioprinting to produce two new bioprinting platforms that provide temporary guiding structures to self-organizing tissues. To demonstrate the utility of these bioprinting platforms they will be used to engineer, for the first time, patient-specific cartilage and meniscal grafts that mimic the internal and external anatomy and complex mechanical properties of the native tissues. 

Professor Kelly, who has previously won ERC Starting, Consolidator and Proof-of-Concept Grants, said:

“My team has spent over 15 years exploring how different tissue engineering and 3D bioprinting strategies can potentially be used to regenerate damaged tissues and organs. This past work has provided us with a strong understanding of the benefits and limitations of existing technologies, which will be leveraged within the 4D-BOUNDARIES project as we seek to develop new bioprinting platforms capable of engineering truly functional living tissues.

“We believe the outputs from the project will eventually impact the clinical treatment of damaged joints and lessen the burden of diseases like arthritis.”

Researchers interested in pursuing funding under the ERC scheme are provided with dedicated workshops and webinars, and benefit from individual support from experts in Trinity’s Research Development Office. A €16,000 fund from Enterprise Ireland also exists to assist with applications.