EUR 2.7 Million for Research on the Function of Signaling Pathways in Cells

Press Release No. 8/2012
12 January 2012
DFG approves second funding stage for integrated research venture involving Heidelberg and Karlsruhe

The integrated research venture “Mechanisms, Functions and Evolution of Wnt Signaling Pathways” involving 11 teams of scientists from Heidelberg and Karlsruhe will be receiving funding to the tune of EUR 2.7 million in all from the German Research Foundation (DFG) for a further three years. The DFG has now approved the continuation of the project, which started in late 2008. Involved in the enterprise are Heidelberg University, Heidelberg University Hospital, the German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ), the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). The research venture focuses on a special family of secreted signaling substances – the Wnt proteins – that control crucial processes in embryonic development, cell differentiation and organ formation in animals and humans.

The molecular mechanisms in which Wnt proteins are involved developed very early on in our history and still play a crucial role. As universal developmental factors, Wnt proteins regulate the formation of heart, kidneys and nerve tissue and are involved throughout the animal kingdom in the establishment of body axes in the embryo. Occasionally, defects occur in the finely attuned temporal and spatial interaction patterns of the signaling network. This results in severe disorders like spina bifida in babies or intestinal cancer in adults.

“With the aid of various animal and organ models, we hope to decipher the mechanisms of Wnt proteins,” says research group spokesperson Prof. Dr. Herbert Steinbeisser of the Institute of Human Genetics at Heidelberg University Hospital. “We also want to understand how Wnt signaling pathways have developed in the course of evolution and how they control development, growth and healing processes at the molecular level in humans and animals. By including research groups with new projects and experimental model systems that have not been represented in the research group so far, the integrated venture will go into its second funding stage with even more research clout than before.”

At Heidelberg University, one biosciences research group headed by Prof. Dr. Thomas Holstein investigates the function of Wnt signaling pathways in fresh water polyps. This work is located at the Department of Molecular Evolution and Genomics of the Centre for Organismal Studies (COS). In the Division of Developmental Genetics division of the Institute of Human Genetics, Prof. Steinbeisser’s group is looking into the function and regulation of the Wnt signaling network in embryos of the Xenopus laevis frog. Prof. Dr. Stefan Hardt’s team at the Department of Cardiology of Heidelberg University Hospital inquires into the role played by Wnt signaling pathways in the functioning of the heart muscle. Prof. Dr. Michael Boutros of the Medical Faculty Mannheim and the DKFZ contributes a project on the regulation of Wnt protein secretion in Drosophila. The project conducted by Prof. Dr. Christof Niehrs (DKFZ and Mainz University’s Institute of Molecular Biology) investigates the localisation of Wnt receptors in cells of the Xenopus embryo. The project run by Dr. Gary Davidson at KIT focuses on the signal transmission mode. Prof. Dr. Doris Wedlich and Privatdozent Dr. Dietmar Gradl of KIT contribute analyses of cell migration and gene regulation in amphibian embryos. Three other groups headed by Dr. Alexander Aulehla (EMBL), Dr. Matthias Carl (Medical Faculty Mannheim) and Dr. Steffen Scholpp (KIT) are associated with the venture. They will be investigating the temporal and spatial resolution of Wnt signals in mice, medaka (Japanese killifish) and zebra fish.

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Prof. Dr. Heribert Steinbeisser
Institute of Human Genetics
Heidelberg University Hospital
phone: +49 6221 565050

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