A long-term objective of evolutionary biology is to reconstruct evolutionary processes and outcomes based on mechanistic descriptions of the interactions between organisms and their environment. However, this objective is only rarely achieved as these interactions are extremely complex. This complexity is particularly evident for multicellular organisms where cells become specialised for different functions and differ in their interactions with the environment.
Professor Dr Martin Lercher, head of the Computational Cell Biology research group at HHU, is investigating these issues using bioinformatic methods. The latest advances in computer science, which facilitate the solution and optimisation of large mathematical systems, are giving the researchers cause for hope that they will be able to implement and analyse complex plant-environment interaction models on the computer in the course of the project.
His MechSys project (Mechanistic Systems modelling of plant environmental adaption and CAM photosynthesis engineering) will now be funded by the ERC for the next five years. In this project, his research group aims to develop a computer model based on biochemical and physical principles to enable the modelling of a wide variety of environmental influences on plant physiology and fitness. Plant anatomy, water transport, photosynthesis and plant metabolism will all be taken into account.
In mathematical terms, the model will include thermal balances as well as the balances of metabolic products (metabolites) and water in various plant organs and in the compartments of leaf cells. The net carbon dioxide fixation per ground area over several days will be taken as the measurement of evolutionary fitness. The more biomass a plant can generate, the better its health and ability to reproduce. The model will then estimate the fitness of the plants for different combinations of climate and soil conditions – for example with regard to the minerals, nutrients and water contained in the soil.
Professor Lercher: “This fitness, which is derived purely from the physics and chemistry of the plant, will enable us to clarify the evolution and prevalence of different types of plants in specific habitats.”
Existing data from representatives of “normal” C3 plants on the one hand and CAM plants – which use water more efficiently – on the other hand will serve as reference values to assess the correctness and accuracy of the predictions. “C3” stands for the photosynthesis process that occurs in the majority of plants, including most crop plants such as wheat and rice. By contrast, “CAM” (Crassulacean Acid Metabolism) is a special form of photosynthesis utilized in particular by species adapted to desert climates. In these plants, the carbon cycle is different: Carbon absorption – in the form of carbon dioxide from the air – and its ultimate fixation in the form of carbohydrates take place at different points in time. This enables the plants to make better use of the water resources available to them.
With the help of the computer model, the team of HHU bioinformatics experts intends to simulate the evolutionary process that leads to CAM photosynthesis, taking both desert plants and epiphytes – plants that live on other plants, such as many orchids – into account. In addition, evolutionary paths toward succulence – a further form of adaptation to a dry and hot climate – will also be simulated.
It is also hoped that the research will provide answers with a view to ongoing climate change and the resulting challenges facing agriculture. Professor Lercher: “With MechSys, we want to predict which specific plants are particularly well suited to certain – also future – climates. This will enable us to propose strategies for the development of new plants that are resistant to periods of drought, which are expected to become more frequent in the future.”
Professor Dr Dr Andrea Icks, Vice President for Research and Transfer, congratulates Professor Lercher on his outstanding success and places the planned research in the wider context of plant research at HHU: “As a member of the CEPLAS Cluster of Excellence, Martin Lercher is already at the forefront of research at HHU. His project will be based at the ‘Plant Environmental Adaption Center’ (PEAC) currently under construction at HHU, in which experimental plant research and bioinformatic approaches are combined to create new crop plants to secure future world food supplies. This wide-ranging expertise in plant research is supported by HHU researchers: We are delighted that Martin Lercher has been recognised with this ERC Advanced Grant.”
About the scientist
Martin Lercher (born in 1967 in Cologne) studied physics at the University of Cologne with minors in medicine, mathematics, and philosophy, and gained his Diplom in 1992. He wrote his doctoral thesis on high-temperature superconductivity at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, gaining his doctorate in 1996. After several years in the private sector, he worked at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Cologne, at the University of Bath (UK), and at the European Molecular Biology Lab in Heidelberg. He gained his habilitation in Genetics in Cologne in 2005. In 2007, he became a W3 professor of bioinformatics at HHU, where he heads the Computational Cell Biology research group.
Together with his Düsseldorf-based research group, Professor Lercher is addressing biological issues using computer science methods. He is conducting research into the evolution and the organisational principles of intracellular networks, including photosynthesis, and develops models that simulate the growth of biological organisms. He collaborates closely with various institutes at the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences at HHU, including the CEPLAS Cluster of Excellence. He has published the results of his research in 100 peer-reviewed scientific works, including in the journals “Nature”, “Science” and “Cell".
Lercher is now being honoured for his research work with an ERC Advanced Grant. He has also obtained numerous other grants and research projects, including in the framework of the “Life?” programme run by the Volkswagen Foundation.
ERC Advanced Grant
The European Research Council is the European Union organisation that funds top-level frontier research. It encourages scientists from the EU to submit their proposals for new research projects in an open competition process. Both early career and established researchers are invited to apply for various funding lines.
The ERC Advanced Grants are aimed at established, active researchers with an outstanding record of achievement. When assessing scientific achievements, the ten years prior to application are taken into account. In addition to the excellence and potential of the project, the assessment also considers publications in international journals, patents, conference presentations and research prizes, among other things. ERC Advanced Grants usually provide a maximum of 2.5 million euros for a period of up to five years. Independent experts assess project applications solely on the basis of scientific excellence in a multi-stage peer review process.
The success rate, which lay at roughly 14.6 percent in the current application round, is also an indicator of the prestige of being awarded an ERC Advanced Grant. A total of 253 researchers across Europe will receive a grant.