Research grant to study how cells sense mechanical stimuli

Three-year grant to study the mechanisms of perception in archaea

The bright color of this hot spring in Yellowstone National Park hints at the presence of archaea.

An international and interdisciplinary team of scientists, comprising Vikram Alva of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen and his collaborators Alex Bisson of Brandeis University (USA) and Tanmay Bharat of the University of Oxford, wins a three-year Human Frontier Science Program Research Grant. The grant will support research on how cells sense and respond to mechanical cues with a total of about a million USD.

For all forms of life – single-cell organisms, bacterial communities, and multicellular organisms alike – it is vital to detect and respond to environmental stimuli. Not only temperature, light, and chemical cues, but also mechanical forces like compression or flow provide important information that organisms use as signals to adapt to changes in their surroundings. How cells sense their physical surroundings (their mechanosensing) differs between life forms: for example, prokaryotes (single-celled organisms without a nucleus, like bacteria) generally employ different mechanisms than eukaryotes (complex, often multi-cellular organisms with a proper nucleus, including animals and plants).

A bridge from prokaryotic to eukaryotic mechanosensing

“We want to bridge our knowledge of mechanosensing at the nexus of prokaryotic and eukaryotic lifestyles,” explains Vikram Alva of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen. “Therefore, we proposed to investigate the intricate molecular machinery that archaeal cells use to interact with their physical environment.” Archaea are prokaryotes, just like bacteria, whom they generally resemble in size and shape, but they possess genes that are more closely related to those of eukaryotes. Evolutionarily speaking, they are close cousins with us humans. Various biochemical processes occurring within an archaeal cell are also more similar to those of eukaryotes than to those of bacteria. This makes them ideal model organisms to close the gap in our understanding of prokaryotic and eukaryotic mechanosensing mechanisms. The team of researchers will use an interdisciplinary approach involving bioinformatics, biophysics, cell biology, and structural biology, taking advantage of the available genomic data and genetic tools.

Funding dedicated to innovative and creative research

“I am very grateful for this unique opportunity,” says Alva. “It is not easy to get funding for a high-risk, innovative project like ours with no guaranteed outcome.” To win the prestigious grant, the researchers had to go through a rigorous year-long selection process in a global competition where they had to prevail against more than 700 initial competitors. Only 28 projects were selected because of the excellent quality of the proposed research and their innovative and creative potential. Together the team of Alex Bisson (Brandeis University), lead principal investigator of the grant, Tanmay Bharat (University of Oxford), and Vikram Alva will receive 365000 USD per year for a period of three years to carry out the ambitious project.


Vikram Alva
Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology
Max-Planck-Ring 5
72076 Tübingen
+49 7071 601-340