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Scientific, Awards & Honors

IMBA group leader Alejandro Burga receives ERC starting grant

IMBA group leader Alejandro Burga has been awarded the Starting Grant of the European Research Council, endowed with approximately 1.5 million euros, for his research into selfish genetic elements called toxin-antidote systems.

Richard Dawkins suggested in his book "The Selfish Gene" in 1976 that some genes can follow their hidden agenda. So-called selfish genetic elements are regions of the genome that seek their own replication even at the expense of their host’s life. Using a variety of molecular mechanisms, they subvert the laws of Mendel and spread quickly within a population. Although selfish elements are a universal feature of genomes, we still know surprisingly little about their prevalence in nature and their contribution to phenotypic variation, evolution, and disease.

Toxin-antidote (TA) elements

Alejandro Burga, who joined IMBA as group leader in 2019, is investigating a particular class of selfish elements, Toxin-antidote (TA) elements. TA elements comprise two tightly linked genes: a toxin expressed in a gamete (oocyte or sperm) and its cognate antidote, which is expressed zygotically. In crosses between individuals that carry the element and ones that do not, all the progeny receive the toxin, so that only those individuals that inherit the element (and thus, the antidote) survive. Recently, Burga uncovered a TA element in the nematode C. elegans, a well-known model organism. “We are really excited about this finding because it took more than 30 years of research in C. elegansto discover this new class of selfish elements and is only the second known case in animals” he added. Burga hypothesizes that TA elements are far common in animals than previously anticipated and that they can be important players in speciation and evolution. 

“I am extremely delighted and grateful to receive this ERC Starting Grant! With this funding we aim to dissect the molecular mechanisms underlying animal TA elements for the first time, and also we want to identify and characterize novel TA elements in diverse nematode species and vertebrates” says Alejandro Burga, “Disentangling the molecular mechanisms used by TA elements will help us design more efficient and specific synthetic drive elements that could target mosquito vectors spreading diseases such as malaria and Zika virus - global health burdens.”

 

About Alejandro Burga 

Dr. Alejandro Burga was born and raised in Lima, Peru. He studied biochemistry at the Pontifical Catholic University in Santiago, Chile and subsequently moved to Europe for his doctoral thesis at the Center for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona. Alejandro Burga completed his postdoctoral program at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he studied, among other things, the genomics of loss of flight in the famous Galapagos cormorant