April 7, 2017

ERC Advanced Grant for Jiři Friml

Plant biologist Jiři Friml wins grant by the European Research Council to take an evolutionary perspective on plant development │ Two ERC Advanced Grants awarded to professors at IST Austria

Two further ERC Advanced Grants have been awarded to professors at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (IST Austria). In total, 33 projects at IST Austria are now funded by grants from the European Research Council. Jiři Friml, who studies the development and cell biology of plants, is one of the two awardees at IST Austria. He has previously received an ERC Starting Grant. In his project “Tracing Evolution of Auxin Transport and Polarity in Plants”, which will be funded for a duration of 5 years, Friml will study the transport of the plant hormone auxin from a novel perspective, looking at its evolution.

While animals can move away when danger looms, plants are literally rooted at the spot. To adjust to changes in their environment, plants respond with flexible development – such as growing towards light or water sources. One of the most crucial developmental mechanisms unique to plants that allow them to be so adaptive is the patterning of tissues by the plant hormone auxin. Auxin is unique among plant signaling molecules being distributed differentially within tissues, forming so called auxin gradients.

Friml and his group have previously shown that these auxin gradients are formed by a polarized transport of the hormone within tissues. This transport crucially depends on transport proteins, the so-called PIN auxin transporters. In a cell, PIN transporters are typically located at one side. This determines the direction of the auxin flow in the tissue. PIN proteins, and the polar distribution of auxin that they set up, have been shown to play a role at various stages in a plant’s life, such as the arrangement of leaves on a plant stem (phyllotaxis), growth of roots towards the source of gravity, or the formation and growth of all plant organs. Friml and colleagues have proposed that the dynamic regulation of PIN transporters is a major mechanism for plants to perceive signals and adapt accordingly.

Although PIN transporters play a crucial role in plant development, the approaches currently used to study them, such as molecular genetics, developmental biology and cell biology, have been unable to solve long-standing questions regarding the structure and regulation of PIN transporters. In his ERC-funded project, Friml will use a novel evolutionary perspective to understand PIN-dependent auxin transport. Friml will seek answers to evolutionary questions such as when did the PINs evolve, what did early forms look like, how did new functions get added on and how do these correlate with increasing complexity in plant development during evolution. This will provide insights not only into the evolution of PIN transporters, but also into their structure, functional domains and regulation.

Jiři Friml joined IST Austria in 2012. Previously, Friml was full professor at the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) in Gent, Belgium (2007-2012), professor and Head of the Plant Cell Biology Department at Göttingen University, Germany (2006-2007), and group leader at the University of Tübingen, Germany (2002-2006). In 2012, Friml received an ERC Starting Grant to study polarity and subcellular dynamics in plants. Friml has received many international awards and fellowships, including the 2016 Charles Albert Shull Award by the American Society of Plant Biologists, the Erwin Schrödinger Prize in 2015, the EMBO Gold Medal in 2012, and the Körber European Science Award in 2010.

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