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Two ERC Advanced Grants to Lund University

Two biology researchers at Lund University have been awarded a prestigious grant worth almost SEK 50 million from the European Research Council.
Eric Warrant and Dennis Hasselquist
Eric Warrant and Dennis Hasselquist

One of the research projects is about the mystery of aging and how the immune system attacks the body’s own cells. The other project will study how small insects are able to navigate with the help of the Earth’s magnetic field.

The Mystery of Aging

Professor Dennis Hasselquist's research project is about how minor infections can shorten people's lives.

“Mild diseases may appear to be harmless, but can involve consequences which are manifested later in life”, says Dennis Hasselquist.

In practical terms, it means that he will study whether minor infections are partly responsible for shortening the chromosome ends in the genome. The chromosome ends, known as telomeres, protect the genome from damage. It is known that the longer telemores you have, the better is your chance of living a long life.

Research on telomeres and their potential involvement in aging was behind the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2009. Since then, research on telomeres has increased dramatically, but, according to Dennis Hasselquist, there is still a surprising lack of consensus concerning the significance of telomere length for physical aging and what makes telomeres shorten faster.

“The connection between the immune system and telomere shortening is not well studied, and especially not from an evolutionary perspective. With my research, I hope to make important contributions to the understanding of these debated issues. This is very interesting because it has to do with the mystery of aging”, says Dennis Hasselquist.

Another part of the project is about finding out how parents’ age and telomere length affect the telomere length of their offspring. In addition, Hasselquist will study a specific group of genes that are key to the immune system. The aim is to study the genetic background of why the immune system sometimes causes health problems by attacking the body’s own cells, known as autoimmune reactions. The entire ERC project is based on studies of wild birds and cage birds, but the basic mechanisms at the cellular level are of interest also from a human perspective.

“In a more general and applied perspective, the latter subproject is very interesting in order to understand the background of autoimmune diseases and why they seem to be increasing in countries with high living standards”, says Dennis Hasselquist.

Navigating using the Earth’s Magnetic Field 

The other ERC project, linked to Professor Eric Warrant, is about a sort of sixth sense in insects, known as a magnet sense. A magnetic compass has previously been confirmed in seasonally migratory vertebrates with relatively large brains, such as migratory birds, turtles, and fish.

“But in seasonally migratory insects with their tiny brains, the use of a magnetic compass has not previously been identified with certainty”, says Eric Warrant.

Preliminary data from research on night-flying moths in Australia show that the bogong moth uses a magnetic sense to utilise the Earth’s magnetic field as a compass. The bogong moth flies approximately 1 000 km back and forth each year in southeast Australia. Billions of bogong moths hatch each spring. Without any experience in migratory routes and destinations, they fly to the Snowy Mountains area where they seek out cool caves located nearly 2 000 meters above sea level. Here the moths rest for 3–4 months.

In early autumn, they leave the caves and fly back to the place where they were hatched. Here they mate, lay eggs and then die. How do the bogong moths find their way to the caves? And several months later, back to their birthplace? Where in the moths’ nervous system is the magnetic sensory organ located, how it is structured and how does it work? Eric Warrant hopes to answer these questions in his new project.

“The bogong moth is an excellent model system for studying how information from the Earth’s magnetic field is detected and interpreted by the nervous system – a fundamental question which is so far completely unanswered, and something of a holy grail in sensory biology”, says Eric Warrant.

The project entails basic research, but many industry and military stakeholders are interested in how seasonal migratory animals navigate across vast distances, and the sensory information they use to find a specific yet unknown destination far from home.

“In a politically unstable world where GPS and other artificial navigation systems are very vulnerable, it has become particularly interesting to find answers to how animals have solved similar problems”, says Eric Warrant.

On 28 April, the two researchers will give a popular science talk in English about their projects. The event is open to the public. The talk is organised by the Faculty of Science, and will take place in the Astronomy building at Lund University on Sölvegatan in Lund at 12:15–13:00.

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