Juha Saarikangas receives prestigious Human Frontier Science Program grant

Assistant Professor Juha Saarikangas at HiLIFE, University of Helsinki, has been awarded the highly prestigious and competitive Young Investigator Grant of the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) to study cellular aging from a new angle.

In the funded project entitled “A new role for aging: origin of cellular differentiation and the evolution of complex life” Juha Saarikangas will team up with William C. Ratcliff, an evolutionary biologist at Georgia Institute of Technology, the US. The two teams will share the three-year $750,000 grant to study the role of aging in early multicellularity. 

“Aging is a nearly-universal feature of life that has been mainly studied as a deterioration and disease-causing phenomenon – but we think that there is more than that to this process. Aging generates phenotypic diversity among clonal cells through time. Using a simple multicellular yeast model, we will study whether aging may have provided an early route to development through cell-location dependent phenotypic change”, says Saarikangas.

The evolution of multicellularity from single-celled organisms was critical for the emergence of large, complex organisms on Earth, but early steps in this transition remain poorly understood. In the funded project the two teams will examine whether aging can be co-opted by simple multicellular organisms to drive cellular differentiation and the emergence of development. 

Though global competition

The Human Frontier Science Program funds frontier research in the life sciences. The applications went through a rigorous year-long selection process in a global competition that started with 702 submitted letters of intent involving research groups in more than 50 different countries. Around 4 percent of the applications were funded. This is the first time that the HFSP Young Investigator Grant has been awarded to a Finnish scientist. 

Saarikangas leads the Cellular Individuality group at the Helsinki Institute of Life Science (HiLIFE) at the University of Helsinki Viikki Campus in Finland. His research group is also a part of the Neuroscience Center and the Molecular and Integrative Biosciences Research Programme at the Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences