Stefano Vanni, a Professor at the Department of biology of UNIFR, has been awarded an ERC Starting Grant. These prestigious European Research Council (ERC) grants fund inspirational and ground-breaking research projects across Europe. Professor Vanni’s project involves studying the inner working of living cells thanks to computer simulations.
What did the European experts find inspirational and ground-breaking in this project? Stefano Vanni is a pioneer in computer simulations of the working of cells down to molecule-by-molecule detail. Biologists can study cells working in living organisms - in vivo – and in their lab tubes - in vitro – but many features are too complex and too small to understand in this way. Enter “in silico” biology, the study of life via computer simulations. Such approaches are now becoming very promising thanks to ever more powerful computers and to the work of researchers who master both the biochemical and computing aspects.
Of course, computers have already been used to create stunning simulations of the inner working of cells, from the magnificent unfurling of the DNA double-helix to the weird creeping of ribosomes along RNA strands. But Vanni’s simulations go further still: they use the laws of physics and millions of simulated molecules to follow what actually happens in cellular processes.
Vanni’s ERC project focuses on what cells have to do to stay alive: cells spend a substantial proportion of their energy on “housekeeping duties”. This entails making sure things don’t fall apart, putting molecules back in their right place, regularly cleaning up and throwing away the rubbish – perhaps even recycling it (not unlike our household chores!). Within a living cell, life is a constant struggle to contain the natural rise of disorder and entropy. Molecules keep diffusing towards the wrong places, and without this housekeeping, our cells would dissolve into a mass of unsorted molecules and die.
The way cells carry out this molecular housekeeping is still poorly known, and a better knowledge can have profound implications. “For instance, says Professor Vanni, cancer cells look very different from the housekeeping point of view. Their membranes are “unkempt” and full of lipids that would have been cleaned away by healthy cells. This feature can be used to identify and eliminate them”.
Is Vanni’s objective to help cure cancer? “Yes, but more than anything I am passionate about understanding how cells work. That’s what drives me forward. Progress in medicine will necessarily follow from a better understanding of how cells work. “
Vanni obtained an SNSF Professorship last year to join UNIFR, and the addition of an ERC Starting Grant now gives him the means to set up a significant research group.