ERC Synergy Grant awarded to project that studies how cells push

Grant allows international team to investigate a fundamental feature of animal cells

Cell biologist and Utrecht University-professor Anna Akhmanova is part of an international research team that has been awarded the ERC Synergy Grant. The multifaceted team receives close to 10 million euros to study how cells push into their environment.

It is a well understood principle that cells sense and respond to their environment by adhering to and pulling on the substrate. But recent research shows that cells also strongly depend on non-adhesive interactions with the environment: they probe, sense and deform their surroundings by pushing into them.

Fundamental feature

Michael Sixt, one of Akhmanova’s collaborators: “The goal of our project is to understand the mechanisms behind this lesser-known phenomenon. The proposed work aims to provide new fundamental insights into biological and physical principles underlying the control of cell shape, integrity and movement.”

Akhmanova, who receives approximately 2.5 million euros, explains why these insights are important: “The ability to sense and push on their surrounding is a fundamental feature of all animal cells. This ability contributes to very diverse processes, such as embryonic development, immune response and cancer metastasis and is currently very poorly understood".

Multifaceted team

The Synergy Grant from the European Research Council aims to award particularly ambitious scientific ideas that are hard to tackle from just one approach. The project of which Akhmanova is a part, PushingCell, stands to further our understanding of biological processes by finding out how cells adjust their shape and motion from various perspectives.

Cell with microtubules (green)

To do so, the project brings together four research leaders and their labs with a unique diversity of expertise. Akhmanova’s research group contributes by studying and manipulating microtubules, one of the key parts of the cell's skeleton. Michael Sixt (Institute of Science and Technology Austria) studies cell migration, Patricia Bassereau (Institute Curie, France) is an expert in membrane biophysics and Pierre Sens (also Institute Curie) a theoretical physicist. 

Logical continuation

Akhmanova explains how this project builds on previous work in her lab: "This research is the logical continuation of a long-standing research line in my lab, where we aim to understand at the molecular level how microtubules contribute to different physiological processes. The collaborations envisaged within this Synergy grant will bring this research to the next level, because together with the other participating teams, we will be able to combine sophisticated biophysical measurements in cells and in vitro with theoretical analysis."

Max Rietkerk also receives an ERC Synergy Grant

Ecologist and Utrecht University researcher Max Rietkerk also received an ERC Synergy Grant for an ambitious, multidisciplinary research project.