European Research Council funds research project "pMolEvol" on the evolution of plasmids at Kiel University with 2 million euros
Another success for the evolutionary researchers led by Professor Tal Dagan from the Institute of General Microbiology at Kiel University: The European Research Council (ERC) is supporting her research on the evolution of plasmids with an ERC Consolidator Grant. For the next five years, the Kiel professor, who is active in the Kiel Evolution Center (KEC) and the Translational Evolutionary Biology (TransEvo) Research Training Group, will receive around two million euros in funding. This will enable Prof. Dagan and her team at the Kiel Microbiology to focus on the project "Molecular and Genome Evolution of Prokaryotic Plasmids" (pMolEvol), starting in Spring 2023. The overarching goal of the project is to create a new, unified concept of the molecular and genome evolution of plasmids. Research into these connections plays an important role in better understanding the evolution of prokaryotes, i.e. a large variety of unicellular organisms, which include various bacterial pathogens.
"On behalf of the university board, I congratulate Tal Dagan and her research team on this important success! The funding commitment from the European Research Council recognises above all their personal achievements and at the same time once again underlines the unique expertise at Kiel University and its partner institutions, which together are on the road to success towards becoming a unique, excellent location for evolutionary research nationwide."
Exploring the largely unknown evolution of plasmids
Plasmids are small, usually ring-shaped, double-stranded DNA molecules that can replicate independently of their host cell. Among other things, they occur in the genetic information of bacteria, but do not belong to the bacterial chromosome. Nevertheless, as a component of the prokaryotic genome, they play an important role in the ecology and evolution of these organisms. Bacteria can, for example, use plasmids to acquire novel genetic information that can give them a selection advantage - for example, in the form of certain resistance genes from plasmids that can make their hosts resistant to antibiotics.
So far, research has mainly focused on such and similar effects that plasmids trigger in their host organisms. "However, how the genetic information of the plasmids themselves developed in the course of evolution and which molecular processes are involved is still largely unexplored," emphasises KEC board member Dagan. "In our new project, we now want to focus on the fundamentals of the evolutionary success of the plasmids themselves," Dagan continues. To this end, the researchers want to look in particular at the replication and inheritance of the plasmids in the host cells and subsequently determine which evolutionary effects are important in this process and how they affect their genome evolution. This requires an extension of classical population genetics theory to plasmid populations in bacterial cells, for which the research team wants to create new conceptual approaches to plasmid evolution from emergence to extinction.
Evolutionary perspective in research and application
The "pMolEvol" project is part of a broad spectrum of evolutionary biology research initiatives at Kiel University and its partner institutions under the umbrella of the KEC. While this project is primarily concerned with basic research, Kiel's evolutionary researchers jointly focus on a strongly application-oriented perspective. In future, this novel evolutionary perspective in research and translation should contribute to finding solutions for various contemporary societal challenges, for example in medicine, environmental protection or safeguarding food security. "Our plasmid research makes an important contribution to translational evolution research – whenever bacterial organisms are involved. This includes mainly the evolution of bacterial pathogens and how certain genetic mechanisms help them to adapt to rapidly changing environmental conditions. This makes it an important building block in countering, for example, the antibiotic crisis or other challenges caused by man-made environmental changes," Dagan summarises.
Prof. Tal Dagan
Genomic Microbiology, Head
Institute for General Microbiology, Kiel University
+49 (0) 431 880-5712
The Kiel Evolution Center (KEC) is an interactive platform at Kiel University that aims to better coordinate evolutionary researchers in Kiel and surroundings. Furthermore, under the key term of "Translational Evolutionary Research", specific bridges should be built between fundamental research and practical applications. Alongside the promotion of science, the focus of the Kiel Evolution Center also expressly includes teaching and public relations work. In addition to CAU, there are researchers involved from the Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research Kiel (GEOMAR), the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön (MPI-EB) and the Research Center Borstel (FZB), Leibniz Center for Medical and Life Sciences.
The interdisciplinary centre for applied life sciences – Kiel Life Science (KLS) – links research at the CAU from the fields of agricultural and nutritional sciences, the natural sciences and medicine. It forms one of four research focus areas at Kiel University, and is aimed at achieving a better understanding of the cellular and molecular processes with which organisms respond to environmental influences. The research is focussed on issues such as how agricultural crop plants adapt to specific growth conditions, or how illnesses can arise through the interaction of genes, individual lifestyle and environmental factors. Health is always viewed holistically in the context of evolution. Under the research focus’ name, there are currently around 80 scientists from 40 institutes and six faculties from Kiel University working collaboratively as full members.