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Fourth ERC Grant awarded to HIRI

1.5 million euros for research on human intestinal bacteria

Würzburg, March 29, 2022 – The human gut is colonized by countless microorganisms. Could some of them protect humans from infections? Principal Investigator Alexander Westermann aims to better understand the interaction between host cells, gut bacteria and pathogens. He now receives funding of 1.5 million euros for his research project “GUT-CHECK” from the European Research Council (ERC). Westermann is the fourth group leader at the Helmholtz Institute for RNA-based Infection Research (HIRI) in Würzburg to be awarded an ERC grant.

Emerging infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance pose threats to global health. However, commensal microorganisms that colonize the healthy human gut may offer protection against infections. In his project “GUT-CHECK”, Alexander Westermann investigates how the intestinal microbiota could be used to combat diseases. The group leader at the HIRI, a joint venture of the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI) in Braunschweig and the Julius-Maximilians-Universität of Würzburg (JMU), has now been awarded a Starting Grant of 1.5 million euros from the European Research Council (ERC).

Great joy in Würzburg and Braunschweig

„For the second time in 2022, one of our scientists has been awarded this prestigious funding,” says Jörg Vogel, Managing Director of the HIRI. “This success reflects the high quality of our research and its significance for society. I am very pleased that Alexander Westermann has received an ERC Starting Grant.”

“ERC grants are among the most important and prestigious awards in science,” adds Dirk Heinz, Scientific Director of the HZI. “We cordially congratulate Alexander Westermann on his great success.”

Intestinal microbiota versus infections

The intestinal tract offers an attractive environment for both beneficial and pathogenic bacteria. The beneficial bacteria of the human gut microbiota feast on undigested foods and provide numerous health benefits. Enteric pathogens see this environment as an entry point for infection. Both groups influence each other and their shared host. With his ERC-funded project “GUT-CHECK”, Westermann now aims to improve the understanding of this tripartite interaction.

Westermann, who heads the HIRI research group “Host-Pathogen-Microbiota-Interactions” and is a junior professor at JMU, focuses on bacteria of the genus Bacteroides. “My team and I plan to investigate RNA-based regulations of the metabolism of Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron, a key member of the human gut microbiota. While this bacterium protects its host against intestinal infections, Bacteroides-derived metabolites can also be utilized by pathogens,” Westermann explains. “The research project contributes to a better understanding of the molecular interplay between Bacteroides, its host, and invading pathogens. These insights may lead to novel RNA-based treatment options for enteric infections,” the HIRI researcher adds.

Alexander Westermann is already the fourth scientist at the HIRI to be awarded an ERC Grant by the European Research Council. In 2020, Chase Beisel started his project “CRISPR Combo” funded by an ERC Consolidator Grant. Neva Caliskan began her work on “T-FRAME” in 2021, which is financed by an ERC Starting Grant. In January 2022, Mathias Munschauer received an ERC Starting Grant for his project “COVIDecode”.

About Alexander Westermann

Alexander Westermann studied Molecular Biosciences at the University of Heidelberg. He obtained his PhD in the lab of Jörg Vogel at the Institute of Molecular Infection Biology (IMIB) in Würzburg. In 2017 and 2018, he was a visiting researcher in the labs of Andreas Bäumler (University of California, Davis, USA) and David Holden (Imperial College London, UK). Since March 2018, he is a junior professor at the IMIB and leads the group “Host-pathogen-microbiota-interactions” at the HIRI.

About HIRI

The Helmholtz Institute for RNA-based Infection Research (HIRI) is the first institution worldwide to combine ribonucleic acid (RNA) research with infection biology. Based on novel findings from its strong basic research program, the institute's long-term goal is to develop innovative therapeutic approaches to better diagnose and treat human infections.

HIRI is a joint venture of the Helmholtz Center for Infection Research (HZI) in Braunschweig and the Julius Maximilians University of Würzburg (JMU) and is located on the Würzburg Medical Campus.

ERC Starting Grants

ERC Starting Grants are funding instruments of the European Research Council to support young scientists in their efforts to become independent top researchers. At the time of application, a maximum of seven years may have passed since the candidate has obtained their doctoral degree. The only explicit evaluation criterion is the scientific excellence of the researchers and the proposed project. The successful projects are funded for up to five years with a total amount of up to 1.5 million euros.

The European Research Council

The European Research Council, established by the European Union in 2007, is the premier European funding organization for excellent cutting-edge research. Each year it selects the best and most creative researchers of any nationality and funds projects based in Europe. The ERC offers four core-funding programs: Starting, Consolidator, Advanced and Synergy Grants. With its additional Proof of Concept Grant Program, the ERC helps grant holders to bridge the gap between their frontier research and the early stages of commercialization.

Luisa Macharowsky

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Luisa Macharowsky