ERC Advanced Grant for Patrick Cramer

March 31, 2020

Every year, top researchers apply for funds from the European Research Council (ERC), and the highly endowed ERC Advanced Grants are sought after in particular. Göttingen Max Planck Director Patrick Cramer has now been successful for the third time – an exceptional achievement. The biochemist investigates how cells use the information stored in their genome. His work on the regulation of this fundamental process is now funded with about two million euros.

Prof. Dr. Patrick Cramer

How does a fertilized egg cell become a living being? How are nerve, muscle, or skin cells formed? “Our genes show different states of activity in different cells,” states Cramer, who heads the Department of Molecular Biology at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Biophysical Chemistry. Depending on their needs, cells selectively activate genes to retrieve the stored information. Only the DNA of active genes is copied in the form of long RNA molecules which then serve as building instructions for proteins. This process – known as transcription – is carried out by cellular copying machines, so-called RNA polymerases, which are only about 15 millionths of a millimeter in size.

Cramer’s team has already succeeded in deciphering the three-dimensional structure of several RNA polymerases and thus gained important insights into their function. “In our previous work, we have investigated how RNA polymerases use DNA as a blueprint to produce RNA,” the Max Planck researcher says. “In doing so, we have found out how the copying machine recognizes the starting point of the genes and how it glides along the DNA to elongate the RNA chain.” The department was also able to show how the process is regulated at the very beginning, even before long RNA molecules are formed.

However, the situation in living cells is more complicated: The DNA is not ’naked’ but with several proteins forms a complex called chromatin. The interaction between chromatin and the transcription machinery is much less understood, Cramer explains. Together with his co-workers, the scientist hopes to clarify how the chromatin is opened locally and how the copying machine gains access to the DNA. This process plays a central role in the development of organisms and in the generation of different cell types. In addition, this chromatin regulation is important in stem cells and in the development of cancer.

The third ERC Advanced Grant is a great success for our entire team because it honors not only our plans but also what we have achieved over the last few years,” Cramer emphasizes. “We now want to use the grant to learn more about mechanisms of transcription in the chromatin context”. (pc/is/fk)

About Patrick Cramer

Patrick Cramer studied chemistry in Stuttgart and Heidelberg as well as Bristol and Cambridge (United Kingdom). After completing his PhD at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Grenoble (France), he carried out research at Stanford University (USA) in the laboratory of the later Nobel Laureate Roger Kornberg. In 2001, he was appointed Professor of Biochemistry at the Gene Center of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, which he headed as Director from 2004 to 2013. Since 2014, he has been Director at the MPI for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen and head of the Department of Molecular Biology. Cramer has received numerous awards for his research work, including the Ernst Schering Prize, the Jung Prize for Medicine and the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize. In 2012, he was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.

About the ERC Advanced Grants

The ERC Advanced Grants have been awarded by the ERC since 2008. Applications are accepted from scientists who are working as independent group leaders and have at least ten years’ experience of excellent research. On average, about 2,000 scientists apply for funding every year. Getting an ERC Advanced Grant is not easy: This year only 185 of the 1 881 applications submitted were successful. This corresponds to a funding rate of 10 percent. 

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