Ulm University delighted about ERC Starting Grant:
Biophysicist explores genome architecture

Ulm University

The “blueprint” of life lies carefully folded in the nucleus of the cell. The three-dimensional arrangement of DNA in chromosomes determines which genes are read in gene expression at all times, and which are read only at certain times. It also defines how DNA can be repaired and amplified. In his “ChromArch” project, Prof Christof Gebhardt from Ulm’s Institute of Biophysics seeks to investigate the principles that determine the spatial and temporal organisation of the chromatin structure – using single molecules in living cells, in fact. The European Research Council has now awarded him a Starting Grant worth some € 1.5 million for his research project. Gebhardt’s findings initially serve the purpose of basic research; however, they could also contribute to a better understanding of certain hereditary diseases at a later stage.
“The award of the Starting Grant is a great accolade for Prof Gebhardt’s outstanding research. We are delighted that the ERC funding will help him continue to successfully pursue his highly innovative scientific work,” says University President Prof Karl Joachim Ebeling about the award.Within the context of so-called gene regulation, some genes can be switched on or off. One of the effects of this process, which can also be initiated by environmental influences, is that it decides on the appearance of an organism and its susceptibility to certain diseases.
The accessibility of genes on chromatic threads also play a role: for example, loops ensure that enhancers and promoter regions interact and stimulate the transcription of a gene, i.e. the conversion of DNA into RNA.

Which molecular mechanisms cause the development of corresponding chromatin structures? And how are such loops arranged? These are just some of the questions that Prof Gebhardt will explore in his newly launched project “Single Molecule Mechanisms of Spatio-Temporal Chromatin Architecture” (ChromArch).

A technique that the 36-year-old researcher developed as a post-doc at Harvard University will prove useful in this connection: “With RLS microscopy, we are capable of illuminating very thin slices of a cell, and observing the processes that take place on the inside,” the scientist explains. The microscopy methods have a high degree of sensitivity for fluorescence applications. Another step forward: previously, researchers needed a large number of cells to investigate the chromatin structure – but ultimately obtained only average values. RLS microscopy (reflected light-sheet microscopy) enables single cells to be observed with a high resolution.

Previously unimaginable insights into the cell nucleus

For the duration of the ERC Starting Grant, Prof Gebhardt will mainly concentrate on developing the methodology. His preconditions are excellent: after studying physics and biophysics at LMU München, he went on to research molecular motors and protein folding as a PhD student at TU München. He later turned to investigating the inner life of single cells. His three-year research stay at Harvard University was funded by a scholarship from the Human Frontier Science Program Organization. It was there, in Prof X. Sunney Xie’s lab, that he developed so-called RLS microscopy, which offers unimaginable insights into the cell nucleus.

Gebhardt joined Ulm University’s Institute of Biophysics in summer semester 2013, and has now succeeded in gaining a Starting Grant from the European Research Council. “The procedure in Brussels was very time-consuming, and the chances of success were slim,” recollects the biophysicist. Hence his utter delight at receiving the award.
ERC Starting Grants aim to support excellent up-and-coming researchers with two to seven years of post-doc experience who are in the process of establishing their own research team at a European research organisation. The European Research Council (ERC) provides a maximum of € 2 million in funding for up to five years for projects selected by a panel of high-level experts.

This time round, 328 projects from the 3,200 applications submitted were successful. 70 Starting Grants went to Germany – more than ever before. It represents Ulm University’s third Starting Grant: Prof Jens Michaelis, Head of the Institute of Biophysics (project already completed) and Prof Timo Jacob of the Institute of Electrochemistry were also recipients of the grant.

In total, ERC awards € 1.7 billion a year in research funding under the “Horizon 2020” programme – including Consolidator Grants and Advanced Grants for established researchers. Prof Frank Kirchhoff, Head of Ulm University’s Institute of Molecular Virology, for example, was awarded an Advanced Grant. At the end of 2012, Ulm scientists headed by Prof Martin Plenio (BioQ group) even succeeded in obtaining a Synergy Grant worth some € 10.3 million – the European Union’s most highly endowed research funding instrument.