20.11.2018 11:22

€ 4 million in funding from German Research Foundation

HHU granted funds for new International Research Training Group in plant sciences

By: Editorial staff / B.D.

In November 2018, the German Research Foundation (DFG) announced that funds had been granted for 15 new Research Training Groups. One of the beneficiaries is the International Research Training Group (IRTG) “NEXTplant” (Network, exchange, and training program to understand plant resource allocation), for which Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf (HHU) submitted an application in cooperation with Michigan State University (MSU). It will start work in May 2019.

Prof. Dr. Andreas Weber is the 'NEXTplant' spokesperson from the Institute of Plant Biochemistry. (Photo: HHU / Jörg Reich)

In contrast to humans and animals, plants are sessile organisms. Because they have to adapt to their environment, plants with the same genetic information (genotype) occur in very different manifestations (phenotypes). At present, it is not possible to predict which phenotype will develop on the basis of a genotype under specific environmental conditions. It is precisely these genotype-phenotype relationships that are one of biology’s fundamental questions. The development of models that can predict the phenotype from the genotype and by defining certain environmental conditions is a major challenge for both basic as well as applied research.

The doctoral researchers in NEXTplant will study the genotype-phenotype relationship in plants and develop models that predict how plant resources are allocated to growth processes, defence reactions, nutrient uptake and propagation in selected photosynthetic model systems. NEXTplant will receive funding of about € 4 million for four and a half years up until October 2023.

What is special about the NEXTplant projects is that theoretical and experimental groups work closely together since the projects are conceived as a cycle of simulation, design and experiment. In order to give the early career researchers in the IRTG the requisite know-how, they complete a two-part curriculum over four years. In the first year, they attend courses together in theoretical biology, statistics, modelling and synthetic biology. Particularly important are the stewardship, processing and analysis of extensive data pools, which are becoming increasingly important in biological research. This one year qualification period is followed by three years of doctoral studies in the respective research project. In addition, a research stay at MSU is compulsory.

NEXTplant spokesperson Professor Andreas Weber from the Institute of Plant Biochemistry: “The new IRTG is breaking new ground in doctoral training. As a four-year training programme, it allows excellent Bachelor graduates from at home and abroad to start immediately with doctoral studies without needing to have completed a Masters programme beforehand.” 

The IRTG builds on a partnership with MSU in the area of Bachelor and doctoral training that has existed since 2009. In the past ten years, 30 doctoral researchers and 60 Bachelor students from HHU have undertaken a research stay in the USA. HHU’s equivalent at MSU is the “Genetics Program” of the College of Natural Science. Just as doctoral researchers from HHU go to the USA for research stays, conversely doctoral researchers in the collaborative projects at MSU come to Düsseldorf.

International Research Training Groups of the German Research Foundation

The purpose of Research Training Groups is to provide structured training for early career researchers. They are funded by the German Research Foundation for a period of four and a half years; a single extension by the same length of time is possible. The focus lies on the qualification of doctoral researchers within the framework of a research programme with a specific thematic focus as well as a structured training concept. The aim is to thoroughly prepare early career researchers in the Research Training Groups for jobs in science and at the same time support them along the path to scientific independence.

International Research Training Groups facilitate joint doctoral training between a group at a German university and a partner group abroad. The two groups develop and supervise the research and study programmes together. IRTGs provide for a six-month research stay at the respective partner institution by the doctoral researchers in the groups involved.

Posts for doctoral and postdoctoral researchers are financed from programme funds. Research trips, events, equipment and stays by visiting researchers are also eligible for funding.

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