Crick scientists win €3 million in European Research Council grants

Crick group leaders Jonny Kohl and Pontus Skoglund have each received €1.5 million Starter Grants from the European Research Council (ERC), to study how pregnancy changes the brain and how agriculture shaped human evolution.

ERC Starting Grants are highly competitive, with only 13% of applications receiving funding this year.

"The success of both Crick applications is a reflection on the high quality of science undertaken by our newly appointed group leaders and their compelling vision," says Olivier Stephan, Head of Pre-award Grants & EU Innovation at the Crick. "This shows that our scientists are true leaders in Europe."

Jonny Kohl's project, 'PregnantBrain', will use mice to study how the brain changes during pregnancy. The structure of an expectant mother's brain changes dramatically during pregnancy, which is thought to be caused by hormones. However, very little is currently known about the mechanisms behind these changes in brain.

I am absolutely delighted that the ERC has decided to support my lab's investigations into the effects of pregnancy on information processing in the brain.
Jonny Kohl

The team will use mice to see which behaviours are affected by pregnancy and how they change over time. They will then study the brain circuitry controlling these behaviours to see which parts are sensitive to pregnancy hormones. Finally, they will examine electrical and genetic signalling in the brain to build a complete picture of how pregnancy hormones shape information processing.

“I am absolutely delighted that the ERC has decided to support my lab's investigations into the effects of pregnancy on information processing in the brain," said Jonny. "Big thanks to the people in my lab, the grants office and all the colleagues at the Crick for their support!” 

Pontus Skoglund's project, 'Ancient genomic reconstruction of convergent evolution to agriculture (AGRICON)', will study how human populations across the world moved from hunter-gatherers into agricultural societies around 10,000 years ago.

By studying DNA from ancient remains around the world, the team will study whether evolutionary processes during the agricultural transition differed in different regions. They will look at which genetic adaptations took place as humanity adopted agriculture, whether similar genetic changes took place when populations evolved independently, and whether domestic dogs also adapted at the same time.

I am very happy to formally join the community that the ERC represents at this critical time for European research collaboration. Successfully applying in parallel with Jonny has been a great bonus too.
Pontus Skoglund

To answer these questions, the project will generate ancient genomic data from pre-agricultural and early agricultural populations from multiple human and domestic dog populations from Africa, Central America, and Southeast Asia. The team aim to reconstruct the universal evolutionary phenomena underpinning this key evolutionary episode that shapes global biodiversity and humanity.

"This grant will allow us in the lab to accelerate our ancient genomic approach to understanding human evolution and ask questions about how the agricultural lifestyle affected human biology that we couldn't otherwise," said Pontus.

"I am very happy to formally join the community that the ERC represents at this critical time for European research collaboration, and grateful for the support from the lab, the grants team and many junior colleagues and senior mentors in the development of the grant. Successfully applying in parallel with Jonny has been a great bonus too."

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