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ERC Starting Grant for developmental research on microproteins

Very small proteins play a very important role in the research of Dr. Stephan Wenkel, head of a group of researchers at the Centre for Plant Molecular Biology (ZMBP) in Tübingen. Wenkel has been awarded an ERC Starting Grant, a highly prestigious award given by the European Research Council to up-and-coming research leaders. Wenkel will use the grant to characterise microproteins in order to obtain important insights into the molecular basis of plant growth.

Since 2007, the EU has been awarding Starting Grants to young, European researchers who have already achieved excellent results in their respective field of research. The grants support innovative ideas – i.e. pioneering research – with a financial volume of up to 1.54 million euros for a period of five years. It is not only the research proposal that needs to be excellent, the recipient of the grant must also have shown outstanding scientific expertise in his or her field of research.

Dr. Stephan Wenkel, biologist and senior scientist at the Centre for Plant Molecular Biology (ZMBP) in Tübingen since 2009, receives the Starting Grant for the project “miPDesign: Designing microProteins to alter growth processes in crop plants”. Over the next five years, Dr. Wenkel and his team will work on the developmental biology of plants; they are particularly interested in so-called microproteins that regulate plant growth in combination with larger, multidomain proteins.

Microproteins are involved in important developmental processes

Dr. Stephan Wenkel, head of a group of researchers at the ZMBP in Tübingen receives an ERC Starting Grant for his research on microproteins. © Friedhelm Albrecht, Universität Tübingen

Dr. Wenkel has been focussed on basic developmental research ever since he did his doctoral thesis at the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research in Cologne. As a post-doctoral researcher at Stanford University in the USA, Wenkel later discovered transcription factor proteins that activate genes that play a crucial role in the development of new leaves. “In itself, this is not really anything new or unexpected,” said the scientist. “However, what did surprise us is that we found very small proteins, i.e. microproteins, that may hinder the work of their larger relatives.”

In Tübingen, the biologist and his team have since identified and characterised several more microproteins in greater detail. They used bioinformatic methods to find out whether the small proteins also work with other proteins. The researchers identified two microproteins that play a considerable role in regulating the flowering time of plants. In the field of plant molecular biology, this is a completely new finding as microproteins had not previously been the focus of attention. “Worldwide, there is only one more research group that is focussed on microproteins,” says Dr. Wenkel. And this unique selling point was a major reason why the ERC decided to award Wenkel the grant.

Came about due to an error during evolution

The thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) is a small plant with an unremarkable flower and the botanist's most popular model organism. © www.wikipedia.de /Nina

That said, microproteins do not have a special structure. These small proteins developed from their large relatives who have gradually lost individual domains as a result of the incorrect duplication of their genomes during evolution. At some stage in the past, the microproteins started to interfere with the work of their large, original models. How strong the effect is depends, amongst other things, on the ratio of small and large cellular constituents.

Over the next few years, the ZMBP project aims to explore the interactions between microproteins and larger, multidomain proteins using molecular biology and biochemical methods. Dr. Wenkel and his team are also planning to produce artificial microproteins in order to be able to selectively interfere with biological processes. It had previously been shown that artificial microproteins that cause abnormalities in blossoms can be produced.

Microproteins are universal molecules

The Center for Plant Molecular Biology (ZMBP) in Tübingen was founded in 1999 and is internationally recognised as one of the leading centers for research plant molecular biology. This year the center moved into a brand new building. © Friedhelm Albrecht, Universität Tübingen

Although relatively little is yet known about microproteins, what is known for sure is that microproteins are a universal species of proteins that are not only found in plants. “Microproteins are also found in animals; this discovery was made in mice around 20 years ago,” explained Dr. Wenkel. Microproteins play an important role in elementary developmental processes in plants and animals; in animals this role has to do with the development of muscle and nerve cells, to name but two examples,” said the biologist. Over the next few years, Wenkel hopes to be able to transfer the findings his team and other researchers obtain on the developmental biology of plants to the situation in animals.

For the time being, most experiments will be carried out in the test tube. The researchers will initially use yeast and Arabidopsis, a plant with small white flowers and the most popular model organism for botanists. At a later date, the researchers will start looking into crops such as rice. The biologists expect their research to give them a better understanding of the developmental processes and signalling pathways in which microproteins are involved, which, within the next five years, will then enable them to design proteins to specifically interfere with these processes.

Further information:

Dr. Stephan Wenkel
Universität Tübingen
Zentrum für Molekularbiologie der Pflanzen ZMBP
Auf der Morgenstelle 32
72076 Tübingen
phone: 0049 7071 29-78852
email: stephan.wenkel(at)zmbp.uni-tuebingen.de

Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/news/erc-starting-grant-for-developmental-research-on-microproteins