Three new FWF funded projects at the Faculty of Life Sciences @UBB

Grigory Genikhovich, Sylvia Kirchengast and Gerhard Weber have received new funding from the Austrian Science Fund (FWF). In their respective projects, they aim to elucidate the bizarre regulatory behaviour of β-catenin in the sea anemone Nematostella, the frequent female deficit in prehistoric and historic cemeteries and the variation in the 3D shape and size of human teeth.

See below for more information on each project!

Grigory Genikhovich (Department of Neurosciences and Developmental Biology) - Maternal and zygotic ß-catenin function in the sea anemone

In bilaterian embryos, β-catenin signalling is critical for two consecutive processes. First, maternal β-catenin specifies the endomesoderm, then, Wnt signalling activates zygotic β-catenin, which patterns the posterior-anterior body axis. The mechanism of Wnt/β-catenin-dependent axis patterning is shared between Bilateria and their evolutionary sister group Cnidaria (sea anemones, corals, jellyfish) indicating that it has be inherited by both these groups from their common ancestor.

Evolutionary conservation was also implied for the β-catenin-dependent mechanism of endomesoderm specification, but Genikhovich group recently showed that in the sea anemone Nematostella this was not the case. There, instead of specifying endomesoderm, maternal β-catenin specified everything but endomesoderm and prevented endomesoderm specification in a wrong place.

The main goal of the new FWF-funded project is to understand this bizarre regulatory behaviour and find out why β-catenin does not accumulate in the future endomesodermal cells, what specifies the endomesoderm if it is not the maternal β-catenin, and how β-catenin accumulation prevents endomesoderm specification in the non-endomesodermal cells. This will be addressed experimentally using a variety of molecular tricks, including a novel transgenic line of Nematostella, in which endogenous β-catenin was tagged with GFP. The team hopes to use these data to better understand the evolution of animal germ layers and patterning mechanisms.

Learn more:


Sylvia Kirchengast (Department of Evolutionary Anthropology) - Gender-associated infant mortality in archaeological samples (1000 Ideas Programm)

The demographic interpretation of prehistoric and historic cemeteries is challenged by a frequent female deficit, with male skeletons often outnumbering female skeletons by a factor of two or more, contrary to expected natural sex ratios. Methodological issues such as inaccurate morphological sex diagnosis and possibly faster decomposition of female skeletons have been suggested but remain unproven. Gender stereotypes may also influence sex classification of human remains.

Kirchengast's interdisciplinary project postulates a new explanation: The female deficit is not a methodological artifact, but the result of the subordinate role of women in patriarchal societies. The deficit may result from lower societal investment in female offspring or from deliberate neglect. This project explores this question through interdisciplinary collaboration between Roman Archaeology and Biological Anthropology.

The team will analyze a Roman-era cemetery from today’s Wels/AUT with a known female deficit. The research will include aDNA analysis of 57 subadult individuals to detect excess female mortality, 14C dating, and material culture studies to determine whether crises such as the Antonine Plague affected female mortality rates. In addition to the biological sex of individuals, their nutritional and disease status will be analyzed to determine societal investment. Digital spatial analysis of burials and the examination of cremations will also be undertaken to investigate gender-specific burial practices. The results will be made easily accessible online and sustainably archived for the long term.  This project will lead to a possible reinterpretation of a hitherto unexplained phenomenon.

Learn more: 


Gerhard Weber (Department of Evolutionary Anthropology) - Variation of the 3D shape and size of human teeth

Human dental morphology has long been studied in dental medicine, biological anthropology, and human evolution. Weber and his team aim to conduct the first comprehensive 3D study of the shape and size variation in human dental crowns, covering both permanent and deciduous upper and lower post-canine dentition and canines. Despite extensive dental research, progress in 3D morphology has been recent. The relationships between the 3D shapes and sizes of individual tooth types, their variation across populations, and the regions of teeth that show more or less variation are still largely unknown. This project aims to fill these gaps, providing data for future genotype-phenotype studies.

The four main aims of the project are to investigate the 3D shape and form variation in a geographically diverse sample of modern humans, to study shape variation in different tooth regions in premolars and molars, to examine 3D shape correlations between different tooth types within and between jaws and to build a comparative 3D database of human dentition.

Using state-of-the-art μCT imagery and Geometric Morphometrics, the project will analyse tooth crowns, catalogue non-metric traits, and measure enamel thickness. This will be the first project to describe 3D shape correlations between neighbouring and antagonistic human teeth, impacting our understanding of human dental development and the link between dental phenotypes and genetics. 

Learn more: