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ERC Advanced Grant: 2.5 Million Euro for Evolution Research at the Vetmeduni Vienna

02-01-2012 - Christian Schlötterer, Head of the Institute of Population Genetics at the Vetmeduni Vienna, has received one of the EU’s prestigious ERC Advanced Investigator Grants.  Helped by the 2.5 million Euro grant for the next five years, Schlötterer and his team will investigate how animals adapt to changes in their environment.

The European Research Council (ERC) was set up to strengthen basic research in Europe by supporting outstanding scientists.  One of the prize-winners in the current round of grants is Christian Schlötterer, Head of the Institute of Population Genetics at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna (Vetmeduni Vienna).  Schlötterer is looking forward to starting his project.  As he says, “Thanks to the extremely generous nature of the prize I can now start this work, which I have been planning for a very long time”.

Adaption to climate change

Schlötterer is working on the question of how animals adapt to altered environmental conditions.  “When they are confronted with global warming, animals and plants have a choice:  either they move to cooler regions or they adapt to the changes,” he explains. Schlötterer is focusing on the latter option.  Starting with a naturally occurring population of fruit flies, he will perform laboratory experiments to learn how the population adapts to changed temperatures.  He will look at the alterations to the genes (DNA), the gene products (RNA) and the appearance (phenotype) of the flies over the course of five years.

The effect of breeding on genes

Schlötterer is absolutely clear on one point.  “There are many genetic variants in every natural population and these help animals adapt to new conditions.  The best examples are animal breeding and plant breeding.  By targeted breeding programmes, the characteristics of livestock and crops can be changed rapidly and effectively.  The results may be clear but we still don’t understand the mechanism behind the changes.”  In the course of the ERC Project, Schlötterer and his team at the Institute of Population Genetics will use state-of-the-art genetic techniques to study the adaption process at the molecular level.

A unique data collection will be analysed

The major challenge does not relate to gathering data but in the analysis and the intelligent evaluation of the enormous quantities of information that will result.  The team at the Institute of Population Genetics has already undertaken pioneering work on the issue but the unique new data collection, which will combine the changes over time in DNA, RNA and phenotype, will pose a new challenge.  An interdisciplinary team of statisticians, bioinformaticians and biologists will work together on analysing the data.  Asked whether his research could mitigate the effects of global warming, Schlötterer can only laugh.  “Definitely not, although we should be able to show the importance of natural variation in making the molecular adaptions that are required to cope with the changes.  Not only will the work explain why natural populations are so diverse, it will also teach us how many genes need to be changed for animals to be successful in a new environment.”

The ERC Advanced Investigator Grant that Christian Schlötterer has now received is the second ERC Grant to be awarded to staff of the Vetmeduni’s Institute of Population Genetics.  In 2008, Alistair McGregor received an ERC Starting Grant to investigate fruit flies’ sensory organs.  McGregor is a geneticist who worked at the Vetmeduni until the end of 2010, when he moved to Oxford.

Christian Schlötterer studied biology at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich and performed his doctoral work with Diethard Tautz at the Institute of Zoology in Munich.  After research visits to Cambridge, New York and Chicago he joined the Vetmeduni Vienna in 1995.  He was initially appointed Assistant Professor but having received his professorial qualifications (“Habilitation”) in genetics in 1999 he became an Associate Professor  In 2006 he accepted a Chair at the University of Innsbruck but was recalled to the Vetmeduni Vienna a year later as Full Professor and since then he has headed the Institute of Population Genetics.  Despite many offers from England, France and Germany, Schlötterer has remained faithful to Austria, not least because of the exemplary way the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) supports basic science in the country.  Schlötterer provides the perfect demonstration that top-quality research is not confined to institutions such as the IST Austria, the IMP, the IMBA or the GMI but is also possible at universities.  He is the only scientist at an Austrian university to be recognized with the prestigious EMBO Young Investigator Award, which he received in 2000.  The ERC Advanced Grant is not only the reward for submitting an exciting and innovative research project but is also a form of recognition for Schlötterer’s previous research at the Vetmeduni Vienna.