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ERC Consolidator Grant for Julien Orts and Verena Schünemann


The biophysicist Julien Orts and the palaeogeneticist Verena Schünemann will each receive an ERC Consolidator Grant. The funding is endowed with around two and three million euros respectively. The programmes of the European Research Council (ERC) are intended to enable and advance basic research-oriented pioneering research with high innovation potential.

A calorimeter at atomic resolution to measure molecular interactions

Molecular interactions are at the basis of all biological processes and often include specific interactions between macromolecules (protein, RNA, DNA) and small-molecule ligands, such as cofactors, hormones, drugs, or metabolites. Detailed and quantitative knowledge of these interactions is critical for a molecular understanding of these biological processes and developing new therapeutic solutions. 

The physical chemistry frame for studying molecular interactions is thermodynamics. The extent to which two molecules interact is dictated by the Gibbs energy change of the interactions, which is composed of enthalpic and entropic terms. X-ray crystallographic and NMR structures provide a detailed description of the static interactions associated with enthalpic contributions. However, up to now, the entropic components remain difficult to address experimentally.

The overarching goal of the ERC project "CLAR" is to develop a calorimeter at atomic resolution that will shed new light on molecular interactions. It is anticipated that quantitative thermodynamic measurements within molecules and molecular complexes will open a new avenue in the fundamental understanding of how atomistic mechanisms create a function. Beyond the fundamental findings, applications in translational medicine, drug design, and computer-assisted molecular design could follow.


About Julien Orts (Dep. of Pharmaceutical Sciences)

Julien Orts was trained in Physics & Biophysics and graduated in 2010 jointly from the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory. Julien joined the BioNMR laboratory at the ETH Zurich, first as a post-doc and then as a junior group leader. Since 2021 he has been an Assistant Professor at the University of Vienna in the Division of Pharmaceutical Chemistry. His laboratory focuses on Drug Discovery by advanced NMR methods, including integrated methods for fast protein-ligand complex structure determination, NMR-based drug design, protein allostery, and thermodynamics of protein-protein and protein-ligands interactions.

Tracing Rodent Reservoirs of Plague and Leprosy

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the zoonotic potential of infectious diseases has gained enormous levels of attention within the modern society. A current re-emergence of several diseases, some of which have accompanied humans for thousands of years, necessitates novel approaches and scientific methods aimed at their characterization, prediction and eradication. One crucial element in the evolution and persistence of zoonotic pathogens is the animal reservoirs harboring them. However, this key factor is yet to gain the proper attention and focus in the research of past infectious diseases.
With her ERC Consolidator project "RESERVOIR", Verena Schünemann and her team will trace back past interspecies transmissions between humans and animals, with a new interdisciplinary approach focusing on rodent reservoirs in the past and particularly their connections to plague and leprosy – two diseases that have threatened human societies for centuries. Overall, the "RESERVOIR" project aims to improve our understanding of the mechanisms of past epidemics and the evolution of re-emerging zoonotic diseases, while also contributing to the public health efforts of present and future disease control.  


About Verena Schünemann (Dep. of Evolutionary Anthropology)

Since 2022, Verena Schünemann works at the University of Vienna as an assistant professor for gene-culture evolution at the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology. She started her scientific career in Tübingen, where she obtained two PhDs, the first in 2010 in biochemistry at the Max-Planck Institute for Developmental Biology and the second in 2014 in archaeological sciences at the University of Tübingen.  Further steps in her career were a postdoc position in 2014 and a group leader position at the University of Tübingen from 2015 to 2017, as well as an assistant professorship for paleogenetics at the University of Zurich from 2017. Verena Schünemann has been pioneering the field of ancient pathogen genomics in order to uncover the long-term evolution of various pathogens and to obtain new insights into host-pathogen interactions in the past. 

© Julien Orts

© Corinna Steiner