The University of Birmingham has been awarded close to €8m in research grants by the European Research Council.

The five ERC Starting Grants, which last for five years, were awarded to researchers from across the university, and span such subjects as human evolution, memory, plant biology, the treatment of diabetes and particle physics.

Set up in 2007 by the EU, the European Research Council (ERC) is the first pan-European funding organisation for frontier research. It aims to stimulate scientific excellence in Europe by encouraging competition for funding between the very best, creative researchers of any nationality and age.

The five awards are:

€1.5m to Dr Claudio Tennie, School of Psychology

Cultural, not genetic, adaptations have allowed humans to colonise the planet, but it remains unclear when such forms of culture first arose. The use of stone tools provides interesting insight. Recent research suggests that stone tool use may be the result of individual reinventions, or latent solutions more commonly seen in great apes, rather than through copied behaviour as per modern humans. The STONECULT project will evaluate whether early stone tools were more similar to modern human or modern ape technologies, and as such confirm, or radically change, the understood timeline for the emergence of cumulative culture.

€1.5m to Dr Maria Wimber, School of Psychology

Research suggests that remembering is a reconstructive process that is heavily influenced by our expectations and knowledge about the world. In this project, Dr Maria Wimber will look to uncover the neural mechanisms of memory reconstruction. Her research team will use advanced brain imaging techniques to track the re-emergence of individual memories in real-time patterns of brain activity. These techniques make it possible to observe how the process of remembering unfolds, step by step, in the human brain, and how our memories changes over time when we repeatedly bring them back to mind.

€1.5m to Dr Dan Gibbs, School of Biosciences

Plants have to respond to the changing seasons and unpredictable stresses, such as flooding, to appropriately time their development and ensure their survival. To do this, they have evolved complex mechanisms for accurately sensing their environment.   This project will be the first investigate how plants perceive and respond to environmentally-triggered changes in the availability of important gases (including oxygen) through controlling the stability of a key protein that coordinates growth and stress-tolerance, by programming a long term ‘memory’ in the plant. The research will identify new molecular targets for the development of superior crop varieties that are required for increasing global food security.

€1.7m to Dr David Hodson, Institute of Metabolism and Systems Research

Type 2 diabetes mellitus, one of the major healthcare challenges of our time, is characterised by failure of beta cells to functionally adapt to increased peripheral insulin resistance. The resulting chronic elevations in blood glucose concentration are associated with heart, kidney, liver, nerve and retinal disease, as well as cancer. This project will pursue groundbreaking research into how islets function to release insulin, with a view to unveiling a new route to restore insulin secretion when the beta cells have failed.

€1.5m to Dr Konstantinos Nikolopoulos, School of Physics and Astronomy

With the observation of a Higgs boson in July 2012 at the CERN Large Hadron Collider, the Standard Model is now complete. However, the mechanism of mass generation for matter particles is still unclear. The explanation offered by the Standard Model is not rooted on some fundamental physics principle, while other beyond the Standard Model theories provide different explanations that would result to modified interactions of the matter particles to the Higgs boson.

The ExclusiveHiggs project will try to provide the direct information on this subject by attacking in a systematic and comprehensive way the experimentally most unconstrained part of the Standard Model: the interactions of the light-quarks (up, down, charm and strange) to the Higgs boson.

Notes to editors

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