€1.5m for research into the assembly of critical membrane proteins

The European Research Council (ERC) has awarded a €1.5 million Starting Grant to Dr Jani Bolla, to investigate the cell machinery that assembles a set of proteins which are critical to our ability to manage both plant yields and some infectious diseases. The ERC starting grants recognise talented early-career scientists who have already produced excellent work and show potential to be a research leader in their field.

The project will look at β-barrel membrane proteins and how they are folded and inserted within cell membranes, where they are involved in transporting substances into and out of the cell. These proteins are found across different domains of life:

  • Gram-negative bacteria – bacteria surrounded by an extra membrane layer, many of which are of particular concern due to high tendency to resist antibiotics
  • Chloroplasts – responsible for photosynthesis, producing energy from sunlight
  • Mitochondria – responsible for respiration, producing energy from nutrients and oxygen

How these proteins assemble is a fundamental question in cell biology and biochemistry – one with many implications. Understanding this mechanism could enable us to modify or control it, aiding the development of specific therapies targeting resistant bacteria or mitochondrial diseases. It could also contribute to the development of crops with enhanced yields, addressing population needs and pressure from climate change.

Many critical steps in this mechanism remain unclear, including how the assembly machineries recognise, fold, and release substrates. This is largely due to our inability to capture transient interactions involved in this process. This will be the focus of the project, building on recent work where Jani will use a method called native mass spectrometry, which allows investigation of intact proteins and analysis of their structure and function.