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Two researchers in biology receive ERC Consolidator Grants

A collage of two portraits. Photo.
Stanley Heinze and Anna Runemark. Photo: Johan Joelsson and private.

Brain cells that control the behaviour of insects, extreme gene expression in Italian sparrows and how radiotherapy alters the microenvironment in aggressive brain tumours. Three researchers at Lund University have been awarded five-year grants from the European Research Council.

Stanley Heinze, a researcher at the Department of Biology, will study insect brains and their neural circuits. His project deals with a specific part of the brain that governs their behaviour, and how it evolved over 450 million years of evolution. Why, for example, do ants choose to walk in a long line towards the stack instead of creating their own pile of needles? Or why does the ladybug choose to sit on your hand on a warm summer evening? In total, Stanley Heinze, along with two doctoral students and two postdocs, will map the brains of 18 insect species. These include silverfish, bees, grasshoppers and butterflies. By first examining the entire brain of about a hundred insect species, it will then be possible to further study the behavioural control of the 18 selected species.

“With a deeper knowledge of insect decision-making, we can begin to understand how this could be applicable to humans. Whether you want to go to an anthill or a shopping mall, decisions are controlled by cells in our extremely complex brains”, says Stanley Heinze.

Anna Runemark, associate senior lecturer at the Department of Biology, will study how hybridization can give rise to new variations. She will investigate the role that gene expression plays when hybrid species become more extreme in their characteristics than both parent species. For example, hybrid plants can grow in drier environments than both parent species. In her project, Runemark will take a closer look at the Italian sparrow, which is a hybrid species between the house sparrow and the Spanish sparrow. The species can be found on the Italian peninsula and on four Mediterranean islands, and has a string of different gene combinations from its parent species. By mapping the gene expression of the geographically separated sparrows, Anna Runemark hopes to gain a deeper insight into the secrets of the genome, which gives rise to new extreme variations when two different genomes are merged. Together with a doctoral student, a lab assistant and two postdocs, she will go to Sicily, Crete, Malta and Corsica and study Italian sparrows.

“Understanding the effects of hybridization is important. This became evident during the pandemic, when it emerged that Neanderthal genes could both help us and be detrimental to us. In a warmer climate, we will also see more hybridization, as animal species that have not previously been close to each other meet”, says Anna Runemark.