Aerial view over the Radcliffe Camera and All Souls College, Oxford University. Photo credit: Shutterstock
Aerial view over the Radcliffe Camera and All Souls College, Oxford University. Four leading Oxford University researchers have been awarded major European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grants. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Four Oxford researchers awarded €2.5 million European Research Council Advanced Grants

Four University of Oxford researchers have been awarded European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grants of €2.5 million each over five years to explore their most innovative and ambitious ideas. These grants recognise ground-breaking projects led by researchers with a track record of significant research achievements.

The ERC is the premier European funding organisation for excellent frontier research, and the ERC Advanced Grants are amongst the most prestigious and competitive EU funding schemes. They provide researchers with the opportunity to pursue ambitious, curiosity-driven projects that could lead to major scientific breakthroughs. This latest call for proposals attracted nearly 1,650 applications, which had an overall success rate of 13.2%. Female researchers accounted for 23% of all applications, their highest participation rate in Advanced Grant calls up to now.

Maria Leptin, ERC President, said: ‘These new ERC Advanced Grantees are a testament to the outstanding quality of research carried out across Europe. I am especially pleased to see such a high number of female researchers in this competition and that they are increasingly successful in securing funding. We look forward to seeing the results of the new projects in the years to come, with many likely to lead to breakthroughs and new advances.’

Understanding evolutionary drivers of antibiotic resistance and predator influence on ecosystems

Two of the Grants have been awarded to researchers in the University of Oxford’s Department of Biology: Professor Craig MacLean and Professor Tim Coulson.

Professor Craig MacLean will investigate the ecological and evolutionary drivers of antibiotic resistance in patients. The project aims to uncover the drivers of both emergence and loss of resistance during infection, as well as exploring how bacterial genomes evolve in response to antibiotic treatment.

Professor MacLean said: ‘Antibiotic resistance has emerged as a fundamental threat to human health and responding to this crisis is a global scientific challenge. The project will involve a novel combination of clinical sampling, experimental evolution, and genomic analyses, generating unprecedented insights into the drivers of resistance during infection. This work will combat a knowledge gap and optimise interventions for combatting resistance, ultimately benefitting patients.’

Professor Tim Coulson. Photo credit: David Fleming, University of Oxford.Professor Tim Coulson. Photo credit: David Fleming, University of Oxford.
Meanwhile, Professor Tim Coulson will investigate the ecological and evolutionary consequences of changes in predation within an ecosystem, and the long-term consequences it can have on an environment. This will be explored across three different ecological systems: Yellowstone National Park in the US, freshwater streams in Trinidad, and the oceanic islands surrounding Australia.

Professor Coulson said: ‘Differing levels of predation pressure can cause striking patterns of ecological and evolutionary change such as rapid development of unique life histories and phenotypic traits. Research undertaken as part of this grant will consolidate evidence from different systems and timescales and inform understanding of predation regime change more widely. In turn, it is hoped that this information will give a better picture of what might happen if predators are removed or added to various ecosystems, helping to inform conservation or land management policies.’

New insights into disease progression

Professor Dame Carol Robinson, from the Department of Chemistry and Director of the Kavli Institute, has been awarded an ERC Advanced Grant to investigate how the mass spectrometry technology she has been developing over a number of years could be used in clinical applications. This will draw on Professor Robinson’s expertise in using mass spectrometry to provide unparalleled information on the structure, binding partners, and dynamics of proteins. In this new work, she will develop approaches to link the status of an intact protein receptor or transporter with its changing modifications and environment during disease progression. Ultimately, this could help reveal new targets for cancer treatment regimes.

Professor Robinson said: ‘I am delighted to receive this award. It will allow us to explore unchartered territory with approaches that I have spent my whole career developing. I am grateful to all of my team members – their ideas and willingness to push boundaries have allowed us to propose entirely new directions. I look forward to working with them, as well as our new collaborators at the Oxford Cancer Centre, to achieve our goals.’

Investigating fundamental principles of gene regulation

Professor Neil Brockdorff from the Department of Biochemistry, has been awarded an ERC Advanced Grant to investigate in cis translocated (ict) RNAs, a family of non-coding RNA molecules that have important roles in gene regulation in mammalian development. His studies will couple state of the art genomics methods with innovative live cell and super-resolution microscopy. Starting with the ictRNA Xist, which he has studied over many years, Professor Brockdorff aims to compare and contrast different ictRNA family members with a view to understanding the fundamental principles and molecular mechanisms underpinning their unique function in long-range gene regulation.

Professor Neil Brockdorff said ‘The award of an ERC Advanced Grant represents an exciting opportunity to both advance our long-standing investigation of the mechanism of action of the ictRNA Xist, and to uncover the general principles underpinning the evolution of this unusual family of molecules, all of which have key roles in chromosome regulation during animal development. We are especially excited to exploit and further develop Micron Oxford, the world leading advanced microscopy network established in the Department of Biochemistry and across the Oxford Biosciences community.’

More information about the ERC Advanced Grants can be found on the ERC website.

The holding of ERC awards by researchers based at UK institutions is subject to formalisation of the UK’s association to Horizon Europe, which remains the stated priority for the UK Government, in line with the Trade and Cooperation Agreement agreed between the UK and the EU in December 2020. In the event that association is not confirmed by the final date for signature of grant agreements then the UK government’s Horizon Europe funding guarantee will apply, with UK awardees receiving equivalent funding via UKRI.