Ilpo Vattulainen receives prestigious Human Frontier Science Program grant

Professor Ilpo Vattulainen at the Department of Physics and his colleagues from Germany and USA have been awarded a three-year grant worth over one million USD to research the regulation of membrane receptor function in the brain by lipid composition and dietary inputs.

The brain has an exceptionally high lipid content. Lipids function primarily in cell membranes where they regulate membrane proteins involved in signaling processes. A key unmet challenge is to understand the interplay between the composition of membranes and the resulting effect on protein function. The knowledge gap is especially apparent for mammalian neural tissue, whose membranes are highly enriched in ω-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which our bodies do not synthesize.

“The composition of mammalian neural tissue is central to neural function as evidenced by brain lipid alterations in numerous neurodegenerative disorders. Yet the mechanistic relationships between the brain’s unique lipid composition and neurological functions are unknown. We aim to unravel these relationships”, professor Ilpo Vattulainen describes.

“In particular, we explore the role of dietary lipids in modulating membrane composition, and the functional consequences thereof. My group will be responsible for computational simulations. The Simons lab will focus on molecular neurosciences, and the Levental and Smith labs will concentrate on the biophysics and biochemistry of living cells.”

As the influence of lipids on neuronal receptor function has so far been almost completely ignored, these studies will generate significant impact. In particular, the modulation of membrane composition by diet may provide important translational insights and drug-free therapeutic strategies.

4 % of applications awarded

A Human Frontier Science Program Research Grant has been awarded to the joint project of Professor Ilpo Vattulainen, Professor Mikael Simons at German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (Münich), Germany, Professor Ilya Levental at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, USA, and Professor Adam Smith at the University of Akron, USA, to investigate how membrane receptor function in the brain is regulated by dietary inputs and changes in lipid composition. The research includes biophysics and biochemistry, lipidomics and neuroscience and scientific computing. Levental, Simons, Smith and Vattulainen will share 1,200,000 USD for the three-year project.

The Human Frontier Science Program is an international program of research support implemented by the International Human Frontier Science Program Organization (HFSPO) based in Strasbourg, France.

In the end of March 2019, HFSPO granted some $35 million to support the top 4 % of the HFSP Research Grant applications over the coming 3 years.

The 34 winning teams of the 2019 competition for the Research Grants went through a rigorous year-long selection process in a global competition that started with 814 submitted letters of intent involving scientists with their laboratories in more than 60 different countries.

The Biological Physics and Soft Matter Group

The Human Frontier Science Program

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Ilpo Vattulainen


Department of Physics, University of Helsinki