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Congratulations are in order for postdoctoral research scientist Dr Christoph Treiber who has been awarded a Starting Grant from the European Research Council. His funded project will investigate the genetic components that may contribute to diversity of brain function and behaviour.

15 fruit fly brains in a colourful grid design © Gil Costa (www.gilcosta.com)

A large part of our genome is made up of potentially mobile pieces called transposons, also known as ‘jumping genes’ for their ability to change their position. While humans largely share the same genes in our DNA, the combination of transposons are unique for each person. Recent evidence uncovered in 2020 by Dr Christoph Treiber and Professor Scott Waddell in the Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour (CNCB) suggests that transposons are particularly active in the brain. This has given rise to a new hypothesis that transposons might change brain functions and contribute to the diversity of behaviours across individuals within a population.

Dr Christoph Treiber of the Waddell group has now been awarded a European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant to begin an independent line of research to interrogate this hypothesis over the next five years. The award of more than £1.25 million will “help us understand whether our unique transposon fingerprint contributes to who we are. Transposons could be a key component of our personality.” (Dr Christoph Treiber).

With this new award, Dr Treiber will combine two novel and ground-breaking techniques to test the hypothesis in the fruit fly brain, a well-established model for studying how genes alter behaviours. The first, single-cell transcriptomics, has been pioneered by Dr Treiber and Dr Vincent Croset in the Waddell Group at the CNCB. The second, PacBio® single-molecule real-time (SMRT) sequencing generates full length cDNA sequences from cells and tissues.

Dr Treiber said: “SMRT sequencing is a game changing technological improvement for transposon research. By combining this technique with single-cell transcriptomics, we will be able to investigate the activity of every transposon copy in the fly genome in all cells of the fly brain for the very first time.”

“What’s most exciting for me is that this funding provides the means to basically create a comprehensive transposon atlas of the fly brain. Once we have this atlas in front of us, it will give us hundreds of leads to follow up. The fruit fly is the perfect organism to remove individual transposons and investigate the impact of these interventions on an animal’s behaviour. In doing so, we will shed light on the impact of transposons on brain functions and their role in diversifying behaviours of individual animals.”

The fundamental activity of the ERC is to provide attractive long-term funding to support excellent investigators and their research teams to pursue ground-breaking high gain, high risk research at the frontiers of knowledge. More information about the 2022 round of ERC Grants can be found on the ERC website: "ERC awards €619m in its first research grants under Horizon Europe."

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