Record for the University of Zurich (UZH) in this year’s ERC Consolidator Grants awarded by the European Research Council (ERC): Six UZH researchers each receive around 2 million euros in funding to implement their innovative project during the next five years. The ERC awards its highly competitive Consolidator Grants to talented junior researchers all over Europe. Their projects must be interdisciplinary in nature, address emerging fields of research, or stand out through unconventional, innovative approaches. At UZH, the six successful applicants work in the fields of economics, human medicine, biomedicine, molecular biology and history.
Reading and regulating gene activity
Tuncay Baubec, SNSF professor of epigenetics, and his team investigate how specific proteins can recognize epigenetic modifications in the DNA. Although these DNA modifications are recognized to play an important role in multiple biological processes, it is not yet fully understood how this chemical language is interpreted by regulatory factors in the cell. The project aims to identify the proteins that can read these epigenetic modifications and dissect the protein parts responsible for their specificity towards subtypes of the chemical marks. Based on this knowledge, his team will use these protein parts as building blocks to engineer proteins with novel properties that can be used to regulate epigenetic modifications and gene activity in the cell.
Reliable rescue drones
Davide Scaramuzza, professor of robotics and perception at UZH’s Department of Informatics and Department of Neuroinformatics, wants to make autonomous drones fly better than human pilots do by using only onboard cameras and computation, making it possible to use them for search and rescue operations in complex environments. The neuroinformatics expert, who comes from central Italy, an area that has been heavily affected by earthquakes in the past, wants to improve the speed, versatility and robustness of today’s drones. His project aims to develop intelligent algorithms that exploit the benefits of event cameras, which are a novel vision sensors with much lower latency and higher dynamic range than standard cameras.
Understanding regulatory mechanisms of blood stem cells
The research of César Nombela-Arrieta, from the Department of Medical Oncology and Hematology at the University Hospital Zurich, explores the physiological mechanisms by which stem cell frequencies are controlled in bone marrow tissues. Hematopoietic stem cells sustain the continuous, life-long production of blood cells. In bone marrow tissues, the stem cell reservoir is constantly maintained, through a tightly regulated balance of stimuli that control stem cell proliferation, differentiation and quiescence. However, it is still unknown how the decisions of individual stem cells are coordinated to establish a collective cellular behavior that is geared towards preserving the entire stem cell pool. Nombela-Arrieta uses genetic tools and customised quantitative three-dimensional microscopy techniques to decrypt these complex forms of cellular communication. His research could help preserve the delicate balance of blood stem cells, which is perturbed in diseases such as cancer.
Capturing tumor complexity
Bernd Bodenmiller from the Department of Quantitative Biomedicine wants to develop novel approaches that comprehensively capture tumor complexity and support precision medicine. Tumors are highly complex entities that consist of many different cells communicating with each other. The project aims to develop new technologies and computer-aided methods that rationalize this complexity and describe tissues akin to (a)social networks. Such representations could help scientists understand the mechanistic underpinnings of cancer in the context of metastatic breast cancer and determine the most suitable therapies for breast cancer patients.
Simplicity in market design
Simplicity plays a key role in practical market design. It brings participants to markets and other institutions, it economizes on the participation costs, and it allows market designers to infer what outcomes are optimal. Marek Pycia from the Department of Economics will study questions such as: What contracts and market mechanisms are simple? How can the simplicity of various contracts and mechanisms be compared? What are the trade-offs between simplicity and other objectives such as welfare, fairness or revenue maximisation? His project’s further goals are to provide a new behaviorally grounded foundation for market design and to develop new practical market mechanisms.
Justice and political order
Historian Benjamin Straumann researches the influence of Roman politician and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BC) on Western theories of justice. His aim is to shed light on how the notion of justice has developed since antiquity. What is justice? Can republics survive in the long term without justice? Is it possible for justice to be established at an institutional level and used as a benchmark in international relations? According to Cicero, the stability of a state requires a specific, juridical kind of justice. Liberty or popular sovereignty, too, require and presuppose a particular conception of justice. The project seeks to show how Cicero’s conception of justice came to play a crucial role in Western political thought.
ERC Consolidator Grants 2019
Prof. Dr. Tuncay Baubec for the research project “Chromatin readout: Dissecting the protein-chromatin interaction code in living cells” (ChromatinLEGO)
Amount awarded: EUR 1,999,375
Department of Molecular Mechanisms of Disease, University of Zurich