Former FNR PhD fellow secures prestigious ERC starting grant

Dr Claude Becker, a Luxembourg national whose PhD was funded by the FNR, has been awarded an ERC starting grant of 1.5 MEUR. Becker is a group leader at the Gregor Mendel Institute in Austria, where his group works on allelopathy – studying the chemical warfare between plants.

Claude Becker was funded by the FNR’s BFR scheme (now AFR) from 2006-2009 while doing his PhD at the University of Freiburg in Germany.

“In my PhD, I developed a platform to study the effects of small RNA molecules in single cells from plants. A particular class of small RNAs, called microRNAs, regulate gene expression, and are important for many steps in animal and plant development. The goal of my project was to use this single-cell system to test the efficiency of such microRNAs. The main question was whether there were specific structures in the RNA of the target gene that would influence the efficiency of the microRNA”, Claude says, adding:

“After obtaining my PhD in 2010, I started a postdoc in the lab of Prof. Detlef Weigel at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany. Here, I studied the emergence and inheritance of epigenetic marks in plants.

“In 2016, I was appointed as group leader at the Gregor Mendel Institute of Molecular Plant Biology in Vienna, an institute that is part of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

“The FNR funding early in my career helped me in two ways. First, the rather long-term funding (as PhD fellowships go) by the FNR helped in acquiring a solid background in scientific thinking and technical expertise that then allowed me to score a postdoc position in one of the most prestigious plant research labs in Europe, at the MPI in Tübingen.

“Second, working on small RNAs during my PhD got me interested in epigenetic mechanisms and whole-genome analyses, on which I then spent my postdoc. Without this line of research, I would probably not have started working on epigenetically active chemicals that are released by plants, which was the foundation of the ERC proposal and is also the research topic of my own lab in Vienna.”

ERC grant to study the chemical warfare between plants

Dr Claude Becker’s ERC grant-funded project is titled ‘Function and Evolution of Attack and Response Strategies during Allelopathy in Plants (FEAR-SAP)’. In their work, Becker and his co-workers try to understand how some plant species prevent growth of neighbouring plants by releasing toxic chemicals into the soil. The project aims to identify the molecular mechanisms that underpin this process, and the genes that make some plants resistant to certain chemicals. Moreover, the researchers investigate the effect the microbiome has on this process.

Find out more about Dr Claude Becker’s project on the GMI website or in the video below

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