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New EU project to investigate evolution of diversity

Just how do organisms evolve and adapt to new environments? That is the question that Dr Henrique Teotónio of the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência (IGC) in Portugal will attempt to answer with the help of a EUR 1.8 million grant from the European Research Council (ERC). Scient...

Just how do organisms evolve and adapt to new environments? That is the question that Dr Henrique Teotónio of the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência (IGC) in Portugal will attempt to answer with the help of a EUR 1.8 million grant from the European Research Council (ERC). Scientists have already officially classified around 2 million species worldwide, and millions more remain to be discovered. Much of this amazing diversity arises when species diverge and adapt to new environments. The ERC grant will allow Dr Teotónio and his team to spend five years delving into the genetic basis of evolution. His lab in Lisbon houses numerous experimental populations of a tiny worm called Caenorhabditis elegans. 'We will be working with around 90 different populations of worms, breeding them in different environments and under different sexual systems, looking at their phenotypes (e.g. male fertility, body size, learning ability, robustness to change), and then relating phenotypes to the underlying genetic structures and changes that accompany adaptation,' explained Dr Teotónio. 'Altogether we expect to measure over 10,000 phenotypes and analyse around a million genotypes (the genetic constitution of a cell).' According to Dr Teotónio, the system he and his team have set up at the IGC is unique, and no other laboratory is carrying out evolution experiments with the same quality of source material (i.e. the C. elegans populations), or integrating approaches to the same extent. 'We expect, therefore, to provide findings that will have a strong impact in the field of evolutionary biology, and in understanding biodiversity,' commented Dr Teotónio. Dr Teotónio, 37, studied biology at the University of Lisbon before going to the University of California in the US to do his PhD. He then carried out post-doctoral research at Cambridge University, (UK), Princeton University (US) and the University of Oregon (US) before returning to his native Portugal in 2003 to take up his post as a Principal Investigator at the IGC. He is not the only ERC grant beneficiary at the IGC; in August, his colleague Dr Rui Costa was awarded a EUR 1.6 million grant to study the neurological mechanisms that control decision-making behaviour. 'There is increasing evidence that the neural circuits underlying goal-directed and habit-based decisions are different,' said Dr Costa. 'Our aim is to establish the differences between these neural processes, both at the cellular and molecular level. If we could unravel the processes whereby goal-directed and habit behaviour are determined, we would be closer to understanding not only decision-making processes, but also obsessive behaviour disorders.' IGC Director, António Coutinho, said, 'Amongst the several European programmes for science and technology, ERC awards are the first to distinguish individual researchers, primarily selected on the basis of scientific excellence, in any area of research. Both these prestigious grants acknowledge that the IGC is taking on a world-leading position, both within the scientific community, and with international funding agencies.' The ERC starting grant, which is aimed at promising researchers in the early stages of their careers, has proven extremely popular. There were over 9,000 applications for the first round of grants. In this second round, which had a total budget of EUR 325 million, over 2,500 applications were received. Dr Teotónio's and Dr Costa's proposals were among just 240 selected for funding. The ERC plans to increase the budget available for its starting grants, and has introduced a new element to the scheme to attract researchers who are still in the earliest stages of their scientific careers. 'In the next call (with deadlines this autumn), the starting grant budget will be segmented into 2 parts, one designated for researchers with 2 to 6 years' post-PhD experience, the other for those who have 6 to 10 years of experience,' explained Professor Fotis Kafatos, President of the ERC Scientific Council. 'It is our hope that this will attract more candidates who are in the very early stages of their research careers.'

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