New ERC Synergy Grant for ISTA

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ISTA  Gašper Tkacik. © Nadine Poncioni / ISTA
ISTA Gašper Tkacik. © Nadine Poncioni / ISTA

ISTA Professor Gašper Tkacik contributes to multi-institute research on gene transcription

The Institute of Science and Technology Austria (ISTA) receives its second generous ERC Synergy Grant. ISTA Professor Gašper Tkacik is one of three awarded researchers to join forces on unraveling the secrets of gene regulation during mammalian development.

Three research groups from Austria and France team up to crack open the black box of early mammalian development. Now endowed with a prestigious Synergy Grant from the European Research Council (ERC), Gašper Tkacik (ISTA), Thomas Gregor (Institut Pasteur), and Denis Duboule (Collège de France) converge their efforts to unravel the secrets of gene transcription and regulation during this crucial developmental stage. The joint project uses the latest stem cell-derived 3D culture models of mammalian embryos and draws on advances in optics, genomics, and mathematical models. Over 2 million euros out of the total grant of almost 10 million euros are allocated towards data analysis and modeling work to be conducted at ISTA.

Understanding gene transcription

The three research groups seek to understand how key molecular events taking place over seconds in a tiny corner of the cell’s nucleus-at distances about 10,000 times thinner than a human hair-are influenced by a large-scale reorganization of the cell’s DNA over hours and days in the entire nucleus. These complex and highly coordinated phenomena occur spontaneously and are key driving forces of organismal development. To understand how the developing cells "know" which genes to transcribe when, the researchers will focus on activating specific genes and tracking their interactions with distant DNA regions in real time. "This is where physics meets biology. We need to bridge the gap: from random molecular encounters over seconds to reliable gene regulation programs over hours and days," says Tkacik. "We will bridge this gap with mathematical models that connect the data of our two experimental partners. This hasn’t been done yet but has the potential to reshape our view of how genes are regulated during mammalian development."

The Tkacik group: Information Processing in Biological Systems

The research of the Tkacik group tackles how complex biological networks-neurons, signaling molecules, genes, or even cooperating organisms-process information. The central dilemma: compared to engineered networks, biological networks are very complex and are built from components that are less reliable and must operate under strong resource constraints. Yet, biological networks nevertheless perform their functions reliably and reproducibly. The Tkacik group combines physics theory and data science to develop new ideas about how biological networks function.

ERC Synergy Grant

The Synergy Grant is a generous grant awarded by the European Research Council (ERC) to address basic science questions of fundamental importance that are hard to tackle using a single approach. The ERC states that the funding is designed to help groups of two to four outstanding researchers bring together complementary skills, knowledge, and resources in one ambitious project.