Another top EU award for the Vienna Biocenter

January 07, 2016

Julius Brennecke, group leader at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology (IMBA), has recently received an ERC Consolidator Grant. This is the 34th ERC grant that has been awarded to researchers at the four academic Vienna Biocenter institutes.

Julius Brennecke already received one of the prestigious starting grants from the European Research Council (ERC) in 2010 to establish his research group at IMBA. This support was vital in establishing his laboratory as a competitive player in the field of RNA interference. His successful track record in the years since then was certainly an important factor in his selection for the €2 million ERC Consolidator Grant. “The generous ERC funding will help me to continue to recruit leading scientists, and to take greater risks in our projects,” says Brennecke.
Julius Brennecke's research focuses on the molecular processes of the piRNA pathway in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. This mechanism, which is found in all animals, is part of the group of small RNA pathways that play a vital role in silencing genes, viruses, and transposons. What is special about the piRNA pathway is that it acts as a protective mechanism for the genome by suppressing transposons in germ cells. Transposons are “selfish genes”, stretches of DNA that can jump from one place in the genome to another, often causing harmful mutations. Research into this genetic conflict will therefore deliver fundamental insights into the coevolution of transposons and the host genome. But the researchers also anticipate learning general aspects about gene expression—in the end all transposons utilize the cellular gene expression machinery.
Over the past several years, Brennecke's research team uncovered strong links between the piRNA pathway and processes that control chromatin, the complex composed of each cells DNA and various proteins. The project awarded describes two primary aims based on this finding. The first is to explain the molecular processes that underlie the shutdown of transposon transcription in the host DNA. Somehow the tiny piRNAs are able to neutralize the regulatory switches of transposons in a sequence-specific and highly effective manner. This involves the formation of heterochromatin, a compact form of chromatin that generally prevents gene expression. But heterochromatin also plays another key role in the piRNA pathway: specific heterochromatin areas are used by the host as heritable archives for transposon sequences. The transcription of these areas produces the precursor RNAs of the small piRNAs, an essential process in the entire protective mechanism. Given their heterochromatic nature, this seems to violate the normal rules of gene expression. “The entire biology of the piRNA sources in the genome poses a number of fascinating issues that will broaden our understanding of heterochromatin,” explains Brennecke.
The insights gained into chromatin processes will also be tested for functional conservation in other model organisms such as the mouse.  “So far our focus has been exclusively on the fruit fly as a model organism. I see this support from the ERC as an expression of trust. We want to use the knowledge we've gained so far to also explore new directions,” says Brennecke.
About Julius Brennecke:
Born in Munich, Julius Brennecke studied biology in Heidelberg and received his doctoral degree from EMBL Heidelberg. After a three-year postdoctoral stay at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories in the USA, he returned to Europe as a group leader at IMBA, an institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW) in Vienna. In 2014 he became senior group leader at IMBA. He received an ERC Starting Grant in 2010 and is an EMBO member.
European Research Council
The European Research Council was founded to promote fundamental research.
An ERC Consolidator Grant supports successful young scientists in conducting outstanding research and solidifying their independence. The grant of around two million euros finances a research period of five years.


Dr. Sophie Hanak,
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Institut für Molekulare Biotechnologie GmbH
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Tel.: 01 79044 3628

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