Batty about research
EARLIER THIS month the European Research Council, which funds blue-sky research, announced its “starting grant” awards. In the current economic climate, the ERC’s investigator-driven or “bottom-up” approach offers something of an oasis that allows researchers to identify new opportunities in any field of research.
It’s a competitive arena, but for those who manage to secure the funding it can mean a big chunk of change that lets them build their research teams and go after frontier questions that could yield important answers.
This year the ERC earmarked around €800 million in grants for over 530 early-career researchers in Europe. Ireland’s performance in bagging just four of those grants has been criticised, but for the recipients here, it offers them the chance to pursue an idea that would likely not have been funded from the national purse.
“I have wanted to do this for 15 or 20 years,” says Dr Emma Teeling, whose five-year €1.5 million ERC grant will see her look to bats for clues about healthy ageing.
“If you want to try and understand the ageing process or halt it, as a zoologist I think you need to go and look to mother nature and see is there anything out there that doesn’t age. And bats appear not to age the same way as other mammals.”
Despite expending three times more energy than similar-sized mammals, bats can live up to nine times longer than expected, according to Dr Teeling, a lecturer at the school of biology and environmental science in UCD. “There are only 19 mammals that live longer than man given their body size, and 18 of these are bats,” she says.
Her project will track a population of wild bats in France over the course of years and take tiny samples of blood to perform genetic analyses and see what tricks the flying mammals might have up their sleeves.
Dr Teeling, who will use techniques she has developed in previous research funded by Science Foundation Ireland, hopes to compare what is happening with bats to what goes on in other mammals and work out at least part of the successful formula. Then future research could look at modifications to emulate the bats’ healthy longevity.
“This is the basic science that could potentially drive something magnificent such as halting or reversing ageing,” she says.
Another ERC awardee with genes in mind is Prof Aoife McLysaght, who will use her €1.3 million grant to look for disease-related genes that are conspicuous by their absence.