Representation in United Kingdom

Can bacterial infighting change our understanding of evolution?


©Despoina Mavridou

An Oxford-based scientist trying to understand why bacteria fight among themselves more than animals is one of 50 established top researchers based in the UK who will receive EU funding to further explore their ground-breaking ideas. Once again, the UK is the biggest recipient of grants from the European Research Council (ERC).


The fact that bacteria are extremely aggressive towards one another is known to science. They release toxins into their environment, stab neighbours with poisoned molecular spears, and may even commit suicide in order to launch their attack. What Professor Kevin Foster wants to find out is whether this aggression towards their own challenges our current understanding of competition in biology – a process that is in turn important to understand evolution.

50 UK-based researchers will receive the so-called advanced grants in this latest round of ERC funding. This is ahead of Germany (40), France (29) and Spain (18). These grants – up to €2.5 million each – support well-established researchers of any nationality or age, who are scientifically independent and have a recent high-level research track-record and profile which identifies them as leaders in their respective field.

Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, said: "The ERC's Advanced Grant scheme has supported outstanding and established research leaders since 2007. It provides a great example of how EU funding can help expand the frontiers of scientific knowledge, providing the resources necessary to continue ground-breaking, high-risk projects, and ensure Europe's global competitiveness."

The President of the ERC, Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, commented: "The diversity and boldness of the research in this latest funding round is again impressive. The selected researchers explore the brink of the unknown, the ideal setting to make breakthroughs. If the past is any guide to the future, the ERC is set to continue betting on audacious scientific projects – the latest review shows again that over 70% of ERC-funded research led to discoveries and major scientific advances. But there are many more bright minds with ambitious ideas in Europe that the ERC could fund if we had more means. That's why the ERC Scientific Council argues for more resources for the future while keeping the strategy of using scientific quality as the only criterion for selection."

UK-based researchers were the top beneficiaries earlier this year when the ERC announced the results for another type of funding which helps scientists that already have an EU grant bring their ideas to market. Since the launch of the ERC eleven years ago, UK-based researchers have been awarded 1 664 grants worth almost €3bn (£2.5bn).

The ERC is the first European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. Its work is part of the wider €77bn (£68bn) EU Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. It offers three core grant schemes: starting, consolidator and advanced. Starting grants encourage young talented research leaders to gain independence in Europe and to build their own careers. Consolidator grants back up researchers who want to establish their research teams and continue developing a successful career in Europe. Advanced grants allow outstanding research leaders to pursue ground-breaking, high-risk projects in Europe. The scheme targets researchers who have already established themselves as top independent research leaders.