Franco-German research funding in the field of biology

Researchers at the Faculty of Biology at Mainz University and their French partners receive financing from ANR and DFG for joint projects

8 January 2024

The joint funding program of the French National Research Agency (ANR) and the German Research Foundation (DFG) promotes Franco-German cooperation in the natural sciences, the life sciences, and the engineering sciences. Through this program, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) will receive support for two distinctive projects in the field of biology.

The EVOMET project: Uncovering the evolution of metabolism in plants

Tomatoes, cucumbers, and potatoes taste different due to the accumulation of different metabolic products in each plant. Plants have the ability to develop new metabolic pathways, but the reasons and mechanisms behind these changes are not yet fully understood. Professor Shuqing Xu from the Institute of Organismic and Molecular Evolution at Mainz University and Professor Emmanuel Gaquerel from the University of Strasbourg will investigate this question together. "For this project, our expertise complements each other perfectly. Our French partner specializes in decoding plant metabolisms, while we have the expertise in evolutionary genetics and genomics," emphasized Shuqing Xu. Both areas of expertise are necessary to study the evolution of metabolic processes in plants.

The Franco-German research group will focus on the evolution of metabolic products in the Solanaceae or nightshade plants, a family that includes potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco, and petunias. Their aim is to identify the natural genetic adaptations that are responsible for the differences in the plants' metabolisms. The researchers will also be looking at aspects such as whether the modifications of a few enzymes are sufficient to create novel metabolites that can protect plants against pests or give them a pungent flavor. Furthermore, the group will determine the evolutionary forces and the environmental factors responsible for the diversity of plant metabolites. There are a number of metabolic intermediates that are generated during the biosynthesis of certain defense chemicals that can result in autotoxicity. This means that if excessive levels of these intermediates accumulate in a plant, this can inhibit its growth and development. One way plants often use to prevent autotoxicity is to modify these intermediates by attaching sugar molecules to them. The researchers hypothesize that the avoidance of autotoxicity might also be one of the reasons why there is so much diversity in plant metabolism. "The results of our studies will provide new insights into the evolution of plant metabolism and expand the options for the metabolic engineering of plants, one of the key areas of green biotechnology," concluded Xu.

The NeuroDevFunc project: Discovering how fruit flies process visual motion generated by self-movement

Our eyes are constantly busy with processing information on movement. We perceive movement not only when an object is in motion, such as when someone kicks a ball towards us, but also when we ourselves run across a soccer field and our surroundings appear to move relative to us. This is basically the same for the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, which can both fly and walk. The information gathered by the fly's eyes needs to be transmitted rapidly to the nervous system to enable the observer to avoid obstacles. T4 and T5 cells are involved here. They are located just a few cell layers below the photoreceptors and detect the direction of movements. Professor Marion Silies of JGU has been investigating how these cells process motion information for several years. "There have been many studies to date that used anatomical, genetic, and functional approaches to discover how this happens. All have come to the conclusion that there are four types of direction-selective cells in the eyes of fruit flies – one each for upward and downward motion, and one each for motion left and right," explained Silies. "However, in a preliminary study in which we examined the whole population of these T4/T5 cells, we were able to demonstrate that, in fact, there are six different types of these neurons. These do not simply encode, as has been assumed, invariable movement directions but together capture the global motion patterns that are generated by the movements of the flies themselves. These results represent a radical shift in the way that the neurobiology of visual motion processing is working."

Dr. Bassem Hassan working at the Institut du Cerveau in Paris has reported complementary findings. The biologist was studying the division pattern of neuronal stem cells and discovered that more than four motion-sensitive neurons were generated during development, thus also contradicting the then prevailing view of the scientific community. "Our results correlate so closely that we intend to combine developmental biology with our investigations of the functional aspects," said Silies. The Franco-German team plans to investigate various topics, one of which will involve establishing how the development and functioning of these cells are linked. In addition, they will be looking at how the subtypes of these direction-selective cells generate various types of behavior. This cross-border research project is to be financed through the ANR-DFG program for three years.