Three million euros for pioneering research

European Research Council funds two young scientists at TU Darmstadt with ERC Starting Grants


Two research projects at TU Darmstadt will in the future be funded by the European Research Council (ERC) as excellent and innovative basic and frontier research with ERC Starting Grants. A total of around three million euros will go to two Early Career Researchers.

For the current funding round, the European Research Council has selected Professor Dominik Niopek (Department of Biology) and his project “DaVinci Switches”, which is being funded with around 1.6 million euros. Professor Timo Richarz (Department of Mathematics) will receive around 1.5 million euros for his research project “MotLang – Motives and the Langlands program”. The projects will last five years each.

ERC Starting Grants are awarded by the European Research Council to researchers from all disciplines up to seven years after their doctorate. In this way, the European Union promotes outstanding research and at the same time the next generation of scientists: The Starting Grant is aimed at researchers, who already showed evidence of scientific excellence early on and are now at the start of their careers and would like to develop independent research or set up their own research group. In the current round 397 grants have been awarded, 4066 applications were submitted from all over Europe.

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“DaVinci Switches” project

Professor Dominik Niopek

In his project “DaVinci Switches” (Designing Allosteric Protein Switches by In Vivo Directed Evolution and Computational Inference), Professor Dominik Niopek is working on new methods to engineer switchable proteins in a targeted, time- and cost-saving manner.

Proteins are molecular machines that perform a variety of tasks in cells. For example, they are of central importance for the movement of cells, their growth or for energy production. Switchable proteins controllable via external stimuli such as light or drugs can hence be used to influence selected functions in living cells and organisms from the outside and thus to direct cell behaviour. This strategy holds enormous potential for application in basic research, biotechnology and medicine. However, until now it has often been difficult and time-consuming to engineer switchable variants of a particular protein of interest. The development of switchable proteins is often approached by trial and error, i.e. lengthy experimentation with different protein switch configurations and the resulting protein switches do not always function as desired.

The vision of the “DaVinci Switches” ERC project is to develop informative computer models and complementary laboratory methods for the design of switchable proteins controllable via external stimuli. For this, Niopek’s team will combine methods for directed protein evolution in the laboratory with high-throughput screening approaches and artificial intelligence. The resulting protein switches will then be used, among other things, to replace damaged tissue by transiently activating cell division and direct cell identity, thus opening new avenues in regenerative medicine. Niopek’s team will be supported by collaborators at TU Darmstadt as well as at the University of Heidelberg and EPFL Lausanne.

Since October 2020, Dominik Niopek has been an assistant professor in the Department of Biology at TU Darmstadt, where his lab develops molecular tools for studying and controlling eukaryotic gene and genome regulation. He is a member of the TU Centre for Synthetic Biology. Niopek studied molecular Biotechnology at the University of Heidelberg and did his doctorate at the German Cancer Research Centre. Following his doctorate, he led a junior group at the Institute of Pharmacy and Molecular Biotechnology and at the Bioqant Centre at the University of Heidelberg and worked as a visiting scholar at Harvard Medical School, Boston. Among other recognitions, Niopek received the Life Sciences Bridge Award from the Aventis Foundation as well as the Ruprecht Karls Prize from the University of Heidelberg. Niopek acts as a reviewer for several renowned journals and his team has published various research articles in internationally leading journals.

Homepage Professor Dominik Niopek

Project “MotLang”

In the project “MotLang – Motives and the Langlands program”, Professor Timo Richarz and his research group are investigating applications of motives in the Langlands programme. The researchers want to contribute to closing a long-standing gap in the field of research.

The Langlands programme builds on the work of the Canadian mathematician Robert Langlands from the 1960s and is an active field of research in pure mathematics with links to number theory, geometry and analysis. Langlands conjectured a translation mechanism between arithmetic and analysis: a close connection between motives, a linearisation of solution sets of polynomial equations and automorphic forms. The theory of motives was only developed to a rudimentary level at the beginning of the Langlands programme, so it was difficult to specify this link. Despite immense advances in both the theory of motives and the Langlands programme, little progress has been made so far in specifying the direct link between motives and automorphic forms. Based on previous work, in the MotLang project Timo Richarz’s team is approaching this question in the context of the Langlands parameterisation for function fields.

Timo Richarz obtained his first degree and his doctorate at the University of Bonn, worked at the University of Duisburg-Essen and later as a postdoc at the Sorbonne Université in Paris. Since 2019 he has been an assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics at TU Darmstadt where he is a member of the Algebra research group. Richarz has spent numerous research periods in Germany and abroad and has received several scholarships, including from the German Research Foundation and the Max Plank society. Numerous publications in renowned scientific journals attest to his scientific expertise. At the Collaborative Research Centre “GAUS”, in which several universities collaborate, Richarz is involved in two sub-projects as Principal Investigator, he is also a partner in the RedLang project (Université Clermont) funded by an ERC Consolidator Grant.

Homepage Professor Timo Richarz