Professor Wolf Reik receives an ERC Advanced Grant to study crucial developmental process

Professor Wolf Reik receives an ERC Advanced Grant to study crucial developmental process

Key points:

  • Professor Wolf Reik is one of the 185 researchers announced today as a successful recipient of an ERC Advanced Grant.
  • Advanced Grants support cutting-edge, exploratory research.
  • The research will apply single cell multi-omics, a revolutionary technique developed at the Institute, to understand the role of the epigenome in regulating early cell fate decisions.
  • Knowledge uncovered by the research project will inform future regenerative medicine and improve our understanding of how developmental disorders arise.

New funding awarded to Professor Wolf Reik, Head of the Epigenetics research programme at the Institute will support research into one of the earliest and most important processes in early development. Professor Reik will receive funding through a prestigious Advanced Grant from the European Research Council (ERC) to apply single cell multi-omics to understand the role of the epigenome in regulating early cell fate decisions. The latest ERC funding will award €450 million across 185 projects for Europe’s long-term frontier research.

The funding awarded to Professor Reik will support research mapping parallel biological read-outs of individual cells to chart their epigenetic journey as a cell capable of being any cell type in the body to being restricted to forming one of the three cellular layers established during gastrulation.

Gastrulation is the process that occurs during early embryonic development whereby the embryo undergoes a crucial transformation from being a ball of cells to a cellular structure with three clearly identifiable layers (called germ layers). These layers create the foundations of the vertebrate body plan. The three layers, ectoderm, mesoderm and endoderm, go on to give rise to the skin and the nervous system (ectoderm origin), bone, muscle and connective tissue (mesoderm origin) and parts of the digestive and respiratory systems plus organs such as the liver and the pancreas (endoderm origin).

Professor Reik said: “Single cell RNA-sequencing has identified major transcriptional changes associated with germ layer specification. Global epigenetic reprogramming accompanies these changes, but the role of the epigenome in regulating early cell fate choice is poorly understood. We are systematically charting this important developmental progression by single cell multi-omics, tracking simultaneously the transcriptome, DNA methylome and chromatin accessibility. As a consequence of this research we will determine the molecular mechanisms of epigenetic regulation of gene expression during development, and the functional consequences of faulty priming in lineage and organ development.”

The research builds upon existing knowledge that gene activation switches in the genome are readied or ‘primed’ at a very early developmental stage to protect their future activities in controlling gene expression. The research funded by the ERC grant will determine the molecular mechanisms of how this priming is established, and look into what happens when it goes wrong, leading to the faulty development of the body’s organs for example.

This ambitious programme of work will provide fundamental insights into how the epigenetic landscape in early development impacts cell differentiation. This knowledge will inform strategies for regenerative medicine based on the use of stem cells, and improve our understanding of how developmental disorders arise in humans.

The President of the European Research Council (ERC), Professor Mauro Ferrari, commented: “I am glad to announce a new round of ERC grants that will back cutting-edge, exploratory research, set to help Europe and the world to be better equipped for what the future may hold. That’s the role of blue sky research. These senior research stars will cut new ground in a broad range of fields, including the area of health. I wish them all the best in this endeavour and, at this time of crisis, let me pay tribute to the heroic and invaluable work of the scientific community as a whole.”

185 scientists will receive Advanced Grants in this round of funding (55 within the life sciences, 82 in physical sciences and engineering, and 48 in the social sciences and humanities). The new research projects, apart from strengthening Europe’s knowledge base, will also lead to creation of some 1,800 new jobs for post-doctoral fellows, PhD students and other research staff. 34 projects were awarded to researchers based in the UK.

 

Notes to Editors

Press contact
Dr Louisa Wood, Communications Manager, Babraham Institute, louisa.wood@babraham.ac.uk

Image description
Artistic illustration of cells overlaid with a DNA helix

Additional/related resources:
ERC press release on the announced Advanced Grants (31/03/20): €450 million for Europe’s long-term frontier research
Press release: Single-cell analysis of the earliest cell fate decisions in development, 11 December 2019
News: Human Developmental Biology Initiative announced, 25th July 2019
Wellcome Trust: Initiative brings biologists together to crack the secrets of early development. Opinion article 25th July 2019
News: Establishing the molecular blueprint of early embryo development, 20th February 2019
News: New technique offers insights into early life 22 February 2018
Research feature: Unlocking the secrets of early development, Annual Research Report 2016 (view report)
Press release: New method allows study of DNA methylation and gene expression in the same cell 11 January 2016

About the Babraham Institute
The Babraham Institute undertakes world-class life sciences research to generate new knowledge of biological mechanisms underpinning ageing, development and the maintenance of health. Our research focuses on cellular signalling, gene regulation and the impact of epigenetic regulation at different stages of life. By determining how the body reacts to dietary and environmental stimuli and manages microbial and viral interactions, we aim to improve wellbeing and support healthier ageing. The Institute is strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation, through an Institute Core Capability Grant and also receives funding from other UK research councils, charitable foundations, the EU and medical charities.

About the ERC
The European Research Council, set up by the European Union in 2007, is the premiere 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 offers four core grant schemes: Starting, Consolidator, Advanced and Synergy Grants. With its additional Proof of Concept grant scheme, the ERC helps grantees to bridge the gap between their pioneering research and early phases of its commercialisation.