Life, death and weaponised viruses

Thursday 22 April 2021

A world-leading scientist from the University of St Andrews has been awarded £1.5m (€1.78million) by the European Research Council to study how the bacterial immune system responds to viruses.

Professor Malcolm White, from the School of Biology, and his team will research how bacteria protect themselves against viral attack, which could lead to the development of weaponised viruses to kill drug resistant bacterial pathogens.

The funding is part of the prestigious European Research Council (ERC) advanced grant announced today (22 April 2021), which will provide a total of €507million to 209 leading scientists across Europe to boost cutting-edge research.

The research team, led by Professor White, will seek to provide new insights into how cells react to a virus, which could have far-reaching implications in the battle against drug resistant bacteria.

All living things, from humans to bacteria, are subject to attack by viruses. To protect themselves, cells have evolved and developed many different defence mechanisms – the best understood of these is the human antibody system. Viruses have developed potent countermeasures to subvert these systems, and this perpetual arms race has been a strong driving force in evolution throughout the history of life on earth.

Cells that become infected by a virus need to send out an alarm and activate their defences. Often they do this by making a small molecule known as a cyclic nucleotide, which is sensed by the defence system. The cGAS-STING system is the human cell defence system used to protect cells against viral attack, however, recently bacteria have been discovered that have an ancestral version known as the cyclic-nucleotide-based antivirus signalling system (CBASS).

Professor White said: “CBASS is a powerful defence system, but there are fundamental aspects of it we are yet to fully understand. Our research will look to answer key questions such as how is the cyclic nucleotide production activated on virus infection, does activation inevitably lead to cell death, or is there a mechanism to switch it off? Furthermore, how do viruses overcome CBASS defence?

“This work will provide a deep understanding of CBASS and open up new research areas, including the fascinating evolutionary links between bacterial and human immune systems and the possibility of weaponising viruses to kill drug resistant bacterial pathogens.”

ERC President Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon added: “For this last ERC call under Horizon 2020, over 200 researchers will be funded to follow their scientific instinct and dreams. Still, the great increase in demand led to a very fierce competition: only eight per cent of candidates were successful. Many outstanding researchers with innovative ideas passed the excellence threshold but were left unfunded due to budget constraints – another motivation for the national or regional levels to support these great projects.

“We look forward to seeing what major insights and breakthroughs will spring from this investment and trust. We are pleased with the continued positive trend for women researchers showing that ERC’s sustained efforts on this matter pay off.”

In total 2678 research proposals were submitted, of which eight per cent were selected for funding, with scientists and scholars of 25 different nationalities receiving funding.

Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office.

Category Research

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