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Two ERC Starting Grants and 1 ERC Consolidator Grant for IST Austria

December 21, 2015

IST Austria President Thomas Henzinger expressed his appreciation: "ERC grants are highly competitive and have become a benchmark for excellence in research. I congratulate Krzysztof Pietrzak, Anna Kicheva, and Martin Loose on their success. Having now 20 out of 40 professors funded by ERC is a testimonial for the growing success and international recognition of IST Austria."

Biochemist Martin Loose will investigate the mechanisms of the self-organizing properties of bacterial cells in his ERC project. The grant is funded with EUR 1.5 million for the duration of five years.

One of the most remarkable features of biological systems is their ability to self-organize in space and time. Even a relatively simple cell like the bacterium Escherichia coli has a precisely regulated cellular anatomy which emerges from dynamic interactions between proteins and the cell membrane. Self-organization allows the cell to perform extremely challenging tasks. For example in the case of cell division, more than ten different proteins assemble into a complex, yet highly dynamic machine which controls the invagination of the cell while constantly remodeling itself. Although the individual components involved have been largely identified, it is still not understood how they act together to accomplish this challenge. It has become clear that sophisticated biochemical networks give rise to intracellular organization but the underlying mechanistic principles have yet to be uncovered.

In his research project, Loose will aim to develop a detailed mechanistic understanding of the self-organizing, emergent properties of the cell. He will develop novel in vitro reconstitution experiments combined with high resolution fluorescence microscopy and theoretical modeling. Following this "bottom-up" approach, he will quantitatively analyze collective protein dynamics and emergent mechanochemical properties of the bacterial cell division machinery. By comparing protein dynamics in vitro with those measured in vivo, Loose is going to provide a link between molecular properties and the processes found in the living cell. This project will not only improve our understanding of the bacterial cell, but also open new research avenues for eukaryotic cell biology, synthetic biology and biophysics.

Developmental biologist Anna Kicheva will investigate the coordination of tissue patterning and growth during vertebrate development in her ERC project. The grant is funded with EUR 1.5 million for the duration of five years.

Kicheva studies how individuals of the same species can vary widely in size, but at the same time maintain reproducible proportions and patterns of cell types within their organs. Achieving this reproducibility requires the coordination of cell fate specification and tissue growth during embryonic development. How this coordination occurs is a fundamental question in biology, yet surprisingly little is known about the underlying mechanisms. A major challenge has been to obtain the quantitative data required to assess the dynamics and variability in growth, pattern, and signaling by morphogens--molecules that regulate both cell fate specification and tissue growth.

In her recent work, Kicheva combined experimental and theoretical approaches which allowed her to reconstruct with high resolution the three-dimensional growth and pattern of the spinal cord. Her data revealed a previously unanticipated role of tissue growth dynamics in controlling the pattern of neuronal precursors. This quantitative framework provides an exciting opportunity to elucidate the biophysical and molecular mechanisms of growth and pattern coordination. Kicheva will address key outstanding questions: how signaling by multiple morphogens is integrated to control pattern, how morphogens control cell cycle kinetics, and how morphogen source and target tissue are coupled to achieve pattern reproducibility. Building on her experience with quantitative analyses, Kicheva will design novel assays where signaling, cell cycle dynamics and transcriptomes can be precisely measured and manipulated with single cell resolution. State-of-the-art genome editing techniques will enable her to uncouple the critical feedback links and to gain a novel perspective on pattern reproducibility and morphogen function. The project will advance our fundamental understanding of tissue morphogenesis and provide novel insights relevant to tissue engineering and cancer biology.

Krzysztof Pietrzak is a computer scientist in the field of cryptography. His ERC project is funded with EUR 1.8 million for five years.

Most research in modern cryptography goes into constructing new schemes for which stronger security guarantees can be proven. However, it is often unclear if simple existing schemes already provide the required security, and one cannot tell how to prove it. As these new schemes are usually less efficient, they are not being applied resulting in a large discrepancy between the security that applied schemes are supposed to provide and what is actually proven. The ERC project aims at closing this gap by revisiting simple schemes, including widely deployed ones, and using new tools in order to prove much stronger security properties than what is currently known. Pietrzak will investigate three research directions in his project: adaptive security, symmetric cryptography, and pseudoentropy.

While many cryptographic protocols and primitives can only be proven secure against so called selective adversaries, in practice one usually requires security against stronger attackers who make adaptive choices (for example whom to corrupt) during an attack. In the last years, IST Austria's cryptography group has developed proof techniques that allowed proving adaptive security of several popular protocols and schemes. These techniques will be further developed and applied in the ERC project. In another line of research, Pietrzak and his group will further develop proof techniques for showing symmetric schemes secure. Symmetric schemes are the work horses of cryptography, but their exact security is often unknown. As a third topic, he will continue research towards understanding pseudoentropy, that is, distributions that "look" as if they had high entropy to computationally bounded parties. Such notions have found surprisingly many cryptographic applications in the past years.
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Institute of Science and Technology Austria

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