Six new WWTF & FWF funded projects at the Faculty of Life Sciences @UBB

The six new WWTF & FWF funded projects @UBB will investigate a wide range of topics - from how decisions are made in our brains, to the evolution of worm snails, newly discovered chloroplast protein functions, new ways to date bones that cannot be dated by radiocarbon dating, marine fungi that can degrade biomass, and the analysis of museum chimpanzee specimens to better understand the history of known populations. See below for more information on each project!


Manuel Zimmer (Neurosciences and Developmental Biology) - An interdisciplinary approach to learn and test the causal mapping between neural network dynamics and behavior

The project investigates how brains determine decision-making processes and our behaviour. Several studies in different animal species have so far shown that large groups of nerve cells work together in close coordination to control, for example, the locomotor system. However there are still questions on how the coordination of such large groups of nerve cells comes about in the first place, and how nerve cell groups can then collectively make decisions between alternative options.

To answer this question, an international team of experts in artificial intelligence, computational biology and neurobiology designed this project. The threadworm “C. elegans” serves as a model organism: it has only 302 nerve cells and can therefore be better analyzed and understood in detail. For C. elegans it is possible to visualize the entire brain activity, including all of its individual nerve cells, at single-cell resolution.

"We will use new computer techniques to learn from the brain activity and simulate how the nerve cells communicate," explains Manuel Zimmer: "We will learn to read and understand the thoughts of these animals. We will then test various resulting hypotheses by using special genetic tricks to manipulate brain activity with light, to control specific groups of nerve cells, and then observe how this influences the worm's decision-making." The project team believes that general principles of brain function can be learnt from simple nematodes that are transferable to larger animals - such as humans.

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Andreas Wanninger (Evolutionary Biology) - Morphology and development of worm snails

In his new project, Andreas Wanninger will be studying worm snails. Worm snails differ from other snails and slugs in that they form calcareous tubes for their worm-like bodies, resembling marine worms, although they are not closely related. These immobile animals are anchored to substrates by a retractor muscle and undergo a developmental transformation from a snail-like morphology in their juvenile form to a worm-shaped adult through processes that are as yet unknown.

This project will investigate the developmental mechanisms at both the morphological and molecular level. Particular attention will be paid to the development and transformation of the musculature, nervous system, calcareous shell and tube, as well as the activity of selected genes known to be involved in the establishment of important morphological structures and responsible for the formation of body axes and symmetry planes in other animals. The data obtained will be compared with relevant data from published works to understand the extent to which worm snails use similar or different mechanisms during development to other animals, especially their closely related snail allies. This will provide insights into the evolutionary and developmental processes that these snails have undergone.

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Markus Teige (Functional and Evolutionary Ecology) - Calcium Regulation of chloroplast Development & function (CARD)

Chloroplasts contain significant amounts of calcium. However, the only well-known function of calcium in chloroplasts is the stabilization of the manganese cluster in the oxygen evolving complex at photosystem II. The total and free Ca2+ concentration can vary considerably, thus calling for an involvement of Ca2+-binding proteins in the regulation of such dynamics. Recent research unveils the mysterious functions of two chloroplast proteins - LENA and LENB - in calcium binding, offering new insights into chloroplast development. Identified through targeted proteomics, LENA and LENB are small, conserved proteins, which are intrinsically disordered. Experimental evidence confirms their role as Ca2+-binding proteins in chloroplasts. Disrupting these proteins leads to severe growth issues in the plants, chlorosis, and altered chloroplast structure.

To unravel the significance of LENA and LENB, Teige and his team are investigating three key questions: Their impact on Ca2+ homeostasis in chloroplasts, their regulation of chloroplast development and their influence on chloroplast function, especially photosynthesis. Anticipated outcomes include the identification of LENA/B's interaction partners, shedding light on their molecular functions. This research will revolutionise our understanding of chloroplast regulation and provide novel insights with broad implications for plant physiology.

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Emese Vegh (Evolutionary Anthropology) - Human Evolution Beyond Collagen

Emese Vegh, mentored by Tom Higham, will delve into the realm of γ-carboxyglutamic acids (Gla)-containing proteins, aiming to unlock their potential for radiocarbon dating in bones where collagen dating proves not possible – which is frequently the case with fossilized remains from tropical sites. This project aims to bring chronological clarity to sites where other methods have failed.

With the central aim of developing an innovative method for extracting reliable, environment-independent data from severely degraded fossil bones, the research aims to revolutionize the analysis and dating of important archaic hominin remains. Using an interdisciplinary approach that combines cutting-edge scientific techniques such as proteomics, spectroscopy and radiocarbon dating, Vegh aims to answer questions that were previously out of reach.

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Tiziano Benocci (Functional and Evolutionary Ecology) – Unlocking the marine fungi biomass degradation potential

Tiziano Benocci, mentored by Federico Baltar, will focus on marine fungi in his upcoming project. Very little is known about the ecological role of marine fungi in the ocean, but recent studies highlight their role in the biomass recycling. The goal of this project is to investigate the biomass degradation potential of marine fungi and the genomic signature of the adaptation to marine environments by comparing marine and terrestrial strains at genomic and phenotypic level. This will include genome sequencing and analyzing how stress conditions typical of the marine environment (high salinity, extreme pH and temperature) affect the degradation performance between terrestrial and marine strains.

In addition, Benocci will investigate the molecular mechanism(s) of these fungi in terms of which and how degrading enzymes and their regulatory systems (e.g. transcriptional factors) are involved in marine biomass utilization, by trancriptomics analysis. This will help to elucidate their ecological role in the marine environment and lead to novel biotechnological applications, including biofuels, biochemicals and pharmaceuticals.

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Sojung Han (Evolutionary Anthropology) – Introgression in hybrid zones in chimpanzee subspecies

Sojung Han, supervised by Ron Pinhasi, is investigating the history and nature of introgression between chimpanzee subspecies using historical specimens from museum collections. She plans to use samples from potential hybrid zones at the borders between subspecies' ranges, as well as other interesting museum specimens from outside the currently known habitat range of chimpanzees. These samples could provide genomic information from communities lost to human activity over the last two centuries and identify the geographic origins of chimpanzees.

Han will analyze whether historical samples contain a higher level of genetic diversity compared to the present day, which is being lost due to anthropogenic disturbance, and the level of introgressed genomic fragments from different chimpanzee communities. The analysis of samples from the edge of the recent chimpanzee distribution may reveal individuals from previously uncharacterized populations, and the geolocalisation of samples of unknown origin will provide new information for the museum collection, benefiting science, museums and the public alike.

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