Estonia secures its first ever ERC Consolitator Grant to advance synthetic biology

Mart Loog (Tartu Postimees/Scanpix)
4/13/2015 9:47 AM
Category: Sci-Tech

Mart Loog, UT Professor of Molecular Systems Biology, received a prestigious Consolidator Grant of the European Research Council (ERC) amounting to almost two million euros. Loog aims to develop an entirely unique toolbox of circuit elements that can be used in synthetic designer cells, which could find a wide field of applications ranging from pharmaceutical production to biosensors.

The ERC Consolidator Grants are awarded to independent top scholars to further their careers. Loog is the first Estonian researcher to receive that specific grant, and only fourth to earn an ERC grant, which supports fresh scientific ideas that introduce unconventional, innovative approaches in emerging fields of research.

Loog will use the grant to develop the field of synthetic biology and the center of excellence in synthetic biology at the UT Institute of Technology. Most of the grant money will be used to higher people and on research materials like chemicals and DNA.

This year, only 12 of a total of 372 awarded Consolidator Grants went to eastern Europe.

"Competition for ERC grants is based purely on scientific excellence, and the new member states do not get any special advantages. Lesser fraction of grantees in Eastern Europe indicates that Eastern European governments must invest much more resources into basic research before we can reach the levels of scientific excellence of the Western Europe. Currently, there is a very wide gap and the new Estonian government should look at the figures again," Loog told ERR News.

Although grant money is easier to come by in certain other countries, Loog decided to build his career in Estonia. "A country like Estonia provides exiting opportunities to build something new, to take part in a process of developing novel ideas and institutions. It has such a "can do spirit" and enthusiastic atmosphere. Also, Estonia is my home and I find that the living standard here is quite high."

He established his laboratory in 2006 after his post-doctoral training at the University of California. This was mostly thanks to starting grants from the US foundation Wellcome Trust and the US Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Loog says that the second-level ERC grant is a proof that the research laboratory and field launched with the aid of the starting grants has started to work successfully and efficiently.

He also said he believes ERC and other similar research grants can help bring back Estonian researchers who have gone abroad, as currently many researchers of the new generation are about to settle in foreign countries.

M. Oll

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