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Two biology researchers receive generous starting grants from the European Research Council

a collage of two portraits. a young woman and a young man. Photo.
The ERC Starting Grant is aimed at younger researchers. Milda Pucetaite and Colin Olito were two of four researchers from Lund who received the starting grant. Photo: private.

The biology researchers from Lund, Milda Pucetaite and Colin Olito, have been awarded starting grants from the European Research Council, ERC. The research projects aim to advance methods in microbiological ecology and map the development of sex chromosomes.

Milda Pucetaite, researcher in microbiological ecology, on the project “Tracing single-cell scale chemical signaling between interacting soil fungi"

Congratulations Milda! Can you tell us a little about your project?

"Fungi play a vital role in soil by breaking down and recycling dead matter, nourishing trees and other soil organisms. Without them, our world wouldn't function. Studying fungi is challenging due to their small size and soil's opacity. Understanding their fight for survival is crucial. In this project (INTERSPEC), I'll utilize advanced microspectroscopy and transparent soil chips to study single-cell fungi. These chips reveal fungal cells for microscopic analysis. I'll also employ surface-enhanced (Raman scattering) microspectroscopy to uncover chemical information about fungal warfare even at low concentrations. This method clarifies their functions."

What do you hope to achieve?

"This project is mainly aimed at method development. Ultimately, I hope to offer the community of soil microbial ecologists a game-changing new tool to study chemistry and ecosystem functions of microbial metabolites (including ‘fungal warfare’ compounds) in more realistic settings. I also want to clarify how interspecific fungal interactions under varying nutrient conditions affect the composition and function of their secreted chemical compounds, and how that, in turn, affects fungal decomposition of organic matter."

What does the grant mean to you?

"It will give me the opportunity to assemble a research team that will work together both towards the novel spectroscopy method development, but also addressing specific research questions and pushing the frontier in soil fungal biology. I am very happy, but also humbled, to have been given a chance to do this. Ultimately, it will also help me in establishing a new line of research which will ‘bring to the table’ advanced microspectroscopy tools for studying single-cell scale soil microbial chemistry."

Colin Olito, researcher in evolutionary ecology, on the project “Many paths to separate sexes: the genomics of sex-determination in the Hawaiian Wikstroemia”

Congratulations Colin! Can you tell us a little about your project?

"Life on earth has undergone several major evolutionary transitions, but perhaps none so striking or relevant to our daily lives as the origin of separate sexes. The goal of this project is to try and understand the genomic changes underlying these transitions by studying a fascinating group of plants within the genus Wikstroemia (after the Swedish botanist Johan Emanuel Wikström) which have been evolving in the Hawaiian islands. They have evolved separate sexes from hermaphroditism multiple times in parallel as they have radiated across the Hawaiian archipelago – but importantly, each time they have done so, they appear to have evolved a new genetic mechanism to determine who develops into a female, and who develops into a male. That is, they have evolved novel sex-determining genes and hence new sex chromosomes each time. Imagine if humans in Sweden and UK had entirely different sex chromosomes despite being genetically nearly identical in every other way! Another part the project provides a really awesome opportunity to utilize cutting edge genomic and gene-knockdown techniques to augment sex-expression in flowering plants – an element of the project with important applications to both basic research and agriculture."

What do you hope to achieve?

"I hope this project will lead to a complete and detailed understanding of how many ways new sex-chromosomes have evolved in the Hawaiian Wikstroemia, This, I believe, will be an inspiring example of just how flexible genomes can be, that at any given moment there are many potential pathways for species to traverse major evolutionary transitions like the evolution of separate sexes via new sex chromosomes."

What does the grant mean to you?

"It’s an amazing opportunity that gives me the momentum to push our questions and knowledge further than before and set a new high-water mark. This ERC starting grant also gives me the opportunity to financially support the colleagues and students involved in the project."