Two ERC Advanced Grants for MPIB Directors

Elena Conti and F. Ulrich Hartl, directors at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Martinsried each receive an ERC grant worth 2.1 million euros.

Elena Conti, director of the department "Cellular Structural Biology" and F. Ulrich Hartl, director of the research department "Cellular Biochemistry" at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Martinsried, near Munich, Germany, each receive an ERC Advanced grant from the European Research Council (ERC) worth 2.1 million euros. Elena Conti and her research group will investigate so-called messenger ribonucleoprotein particles in the GOVERNA project. These large complexes contain mRNA and diverse proteins. F. Ulrich Hartl and his team in the INSITUFOLD project will investigate the basic dynamic functions of chaperones and their interactions with clients in living cells in real time.

Messenger ribonucleic acids, known as mRNAs, contain the genetic information that determines the structure of proteins to be produced. They are read from the DNA in the cell nucleus and passed on to the protein synthesis machinery in the cell plasma, the place where the mRNA is read and translated into amino acid chains.

During their production, different proteins bind to the mRNA strands to form complexes called messenger ribonucleoprotein particles, mRNPs. Over the past few decades, Elena Conti and her team have deciphered the complex assembly of large, central machinery such as the exosome, a protein structure that degrades mRNAs. In her current project, GOVERNA, she will use state-of-the-art technology to explore the three-dimensional assembly of a wide range of other proteins that interact with mRNAs in dynamic and diverse ways. Knowledge of their structure their interplay and functioning will help understand the basic life cycles of mRNAs in cells. Given the recent developments in mRNA-based therapeutics, the study of mRNPs is particularly timely and relevant.

Molecular chaperones are proteins that help other proteins fold into their stable functional structure. Disruption of these basic cellular functions leads to a breakdown in protein balance and promotes the development of diseases associated with protein clumping. These include Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, among others.

The current state of knowledge about the mechanisms of individual chaperone systems, such as Hsp70 and chaperonins, is predominantly based on the study of their functions and structure in the test tube. In his new project INSITUFOLD, F. Ulrich Hartl and his team will investigate the chaperone machinery in living cells. This is made possible by current developments, especially in the field of microscopy, which have also been advanced at the MPI of Biochemistry in recent years.

Elena Conti and Ulrich Hartl say: "Collectively, our two projects will work in a complimentary fashion to illuminate fundamental principles governing gene expression, beginning with messenger RNA through to protein production.“

About Elena Conti
Professor Elena Conti studied Chemistry at the University of Pavia in Italy. She received her PhD in Protein Crystallography at Imperial College, London in 1997. After a Postdoctoral fellowship in John Kuriyan’s lab at The Rockefeller University, New York, USA, she was appointed Group leader at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany in 1999. There she focused her research interest on mechanisms of RNA export to the cytoplasm and the structure and function of the molecular machines involved. Conti has followed the fate of RNA in the cytoplasm since then. She was appointed Director and Scientific Member at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry, Martinsried near Munich, Germany in 2006 where she leads the department of “Structural Cell Biology”. Since 2007, she is Honorary Professor at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. Conti received numerous awards, among others the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize 2008 and the Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine 2014.

About F. Ulrich Hartl
F.-Ulrich Hartl studied Medicine at the University of Heidelberg, where he also obtained his doctoral degree. Hartl joined Walter Neupert’s research group at LMU as a postdoc and then became a group leader in Neupert’s department. A fellowship from the German Research Foundation (DFG) enabled him to undertake research at the University of California, Los Angeles. He did research as a Professor and Howard Hughes Medical Investigator at the Sloan Kettering Institute and Cornell University in New York, USA. In 1997, the Max Planck Society succeeded in enticing the renowned scientist back to Germany. Since then, he has been Director and Head of the Department of Cellular Biochemistry at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry. Within the last years he was honored with multiple scientific Awards including 2002 the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize, 2011 the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research, 2012 the Shaw Prize together with Arthur L. Horwich, and 2016 the Albany Medical Center-Prize together with Horwich and Susan Lee Lindquist. In 2018, Hartl was inducted into the Hall of Fame of German Research, in 2019 he received the Dr. Paul Janssen Award and the Paul Ehrlich- and Ludwig Darmstaedter-Prize, and in 2020 he was awarded the Breakthrough Prize.

About the ERC
The European Research Council, set up by the European Union in 2007, is the first European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. Every year, it selects and funds the very best, creative researchers of any nationality and age, to run projects based in Europe. The ERC has four core grant schemes: Starting Grants, Consolidator Grants, Synergy Grants and Advanced Grants. The Advanced Grant is for well-established top researchers, who are scientifically independent and with a recent high-level research track-record and profile which identifies them as leaders in their respective field(s). More information you find here.

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