Gioele La Manno and Fides Zenk awarded SNSF Starting Grants

Professors Gioele La Manno and Fides Zenk. Credit: Titouan Veuillet (EPFL)

Professors Gioele La Manno and Fides Zenk. Credit: Titouan Veuillet (EPFL)

Professors Gioele La Manno and Fides Zenk at EPFL’s School of Life Sciences have received Starting Grants from the Swiss National Science Foundation.

Due to Switzerland’s status as a non-associated third country in the Horizon Europe programme, the federal government has mandated the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) to launch the funding scheme SNSF Starting Grants. The Grants indicate scientific potential and is awarded to a limited number of researchers across Switzerland (23 awardees across all life sciences), reflecting a commitment to fostering innovative research aligned to the rigorous European standards

Among the 2023 awardees of the SNSF’s Starting Grants are two Professors at EPFL’s School of Life Sciences: Professor Gioele La Manno and Professor Fides Zenk, both at the Brain Mind Institute. “Fides and Gioele exemplify the mission of EPFL’s Brain Mind Institute,” says Professor Brian McCabe, the institute's director. “They develop and apply the most advanced technologies to unlock the secrets of the brain. The award of SNSF Starting Grants is deserved recognition of both their excellence and the importance of their quest to understand how our brains are built, which is the foundation upon which everything else that we do rests.”

Gioele La Manno: Unveiling the role of the lipidome in neural tube patterning and cellular specification

Gioele La Manno takes on the challenge of demystifying the role of lipids in the brain's developmental blueprint. His project targets the early stages of embryo development where the brain's complexity begins to take shape. These are important steps of the process, which are essential for the correct formation and function of the brain, later on in life.

“Our cells and organs, including the brain, are the results of a complex interaction of genes, the gene regulatory network,” says La Manno, who has recently mapped them in the brain. “My vision with this project is to extend this network to new players: lipids.”

Lipids, essential biomolecules in the nervous system, can be involved in various functions such as energy storage, signaling, receptor activity, and vesicle trafficking. By probing into uncharted functions of lipid metabolism, La Manno aims to uncover how diverse lipid species impact the formation and specialization of neural cells.

Combining both experimental and computational methodologies, the project is set to illuminate the lipid-gene interactions that could redefine strategies for addressing neural tube defects and other developmental brain disorders. “If lipid metabolism turns out to be central, as we hypothesize here, we will have new tools to attenuate and alleviate neural tube defects,” says La Manno, highlighting the translative significance of his research.

Fides Zenk: Tracking and resolving chromatin dynamics in human brain organoid development and disease

Fides Zenk's SNSF-funded project is set to make significant strides in understanding the role of epigenetics in the development of the human brain. With a focus on epigenetic modifiers, her work aims to illuminate the processes that guide the emergence of diverse cell types from a single pluripotent cell.

Epigenetic modifiers, edit chemical modifications on histones, the proteins that store our genetic material inside the nucleus. Thereby they regulate gene expression. Epigenetic modifications act as precise markers, signifying which genes are to be activated and which are to be silenced. “Our genetic material holds the blueprint of life, but it is the epigenetic layer that sculpts this potential into the diverse cellular landscape of the brain,” says Zenk.

Zenk's research endeavors to uncover how these molecular machines fine-tune the differentiation of cells. By using brain organoids, as a model system for human brain development, Zenk’s team is positioned to observe and characterize the epigenetic phenomena that are crucial in determining cell fate.

Disruptions in the epigenetic code are implicated in a variety of neurodevelopmental disorders. "Mapping the epigenetic modifications is key to unraveling the complex nature of various neurological diseases and crafting potential interventions," she explains. Through this grant, Zenk's research can contribute significantly to our fundamental understanding of epigenetic regulation in brain development and its disorders.

Official SNSF announcement