Five UCIBIO researchers have been awarded a contract in the 2022 Individual Scientific Employment Stimulus Competition (CEEC), which is the fifth edition of this call promoted by the Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (FCT) for doctoral researchers in all scientific areas.
The results announced by FCT indicate that 2890 applications were evaluated by 28 international panels, of which 1458 obtained a grade equal or higher than 8 (in a 1 to 10 scale). The 400 applications selected for employment contracts for researchers holding doctoral degrees in all scientific areas represent a financial investment of more than 120 million euros.
Ana Patrícia Rodrigo, researcher at the SeaTox Lab at UCIBIO-NOVA, will develop the project “A matter of resilience: the mechanisms of detoxication and adaptation of marine invertebrates to polluted environments can provide lessons to human health”. The project aims to understand if and how organisms can adapt to polluted areas can provide clues about human susceptibility to disease. “As such, my project aims at unveiling the mechanisms and factors that allow organisms, in this case, marine worms, to be successful in polluted estuaries trough state-of-the-art omics and bioinformatics to look for molecular regulator and mechanisms. This will enable homology matching with humans and identify networks, proteins and genes that have key functions to deal with contaminants.”, explains Ana Patrícia Rodrigo. These discoveries will provide important lessons for both ecological and human risk assessment in terms of resilience and susceptibility. It will promote environment and human well-being, by devising new target therapeutics to diseases related with environmental contamination, such as cancer and respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.
Carina Esteves, researcher at the Biomolecular Engineering Lab at UCIBIO-NOVA, will be developing non-invasive diagnostic tools for the early detection of non-communicable diseases, in particular lung cancer. Carina will design soft-sensors with higher selectivity towards lung cancer volatile biomarkers. These soft sensors will be used in electronic nose devices, greatly facilitating diagnostics by breath.
Cristiano Mota, researcher at the Macromolecular Crystallography Lab at UCIBIO-NOVA, will develop the project “PlastiCO2 - The molecular basis to turn carbon dioxide into bioplastic”, focused on the study of two families of enzymes with biotechnological applications in the field carbon dioxide (CO2) sequestration and bioplastic production. Mo/W-Fdhs and PhaCs are remarkable bacterial enzymes, the first able to reduce CO2 to formate with high efficiency and the others key players on the synthesis of PHAs, biopolymers with tunable thermoplastic characteristics. We envisage to combine both systems in one organism that will be able to fixate CO2 and use it to produce a biopolymer.
The reaction mechanisms of these enzymes are still not well understood and structural information is scarce. To fill this gap, we will use an integrative structural biology approach, using standard single crystal and time-resolved serial synchrotron crystallography, SAXS and Cryo-EM complemented by state-of-the-art molecular biology and biophysical techniques. These experiments will allow to determine structural features of the overall fold, important for the enzyme function, and to capture intermediates of the enzymatic reactions that will aid to unveil the molecular determinants responsible for catalysis and substrate specificity.
Gathering this information permits not only bioengineer these enzymes, optimizing the biological systems, turning bacteria more efficient or specific in a biotechnological process but also this info can be used to design stable chemical catalysts that will mimic the enzyme reaction in vitro or in hybrid systems applications.
This project will be an opportunity to establish and develop a research line focused on the study of biochemical reactions with biotechnological applications using structural biology cutting edge technologies. The results of this research will tackle society current needs for sustainable alternatives to fix CO2 and turn it into an added value product (biofuel, biopolymer, etc.) or the quest for cost-effective biodegradable plastics to deal with fossil-fuel plastic pollution.
Henrique Fernandes, researcher at the Biomolecular Simulations Lab at UCIBIO-Porto, will develop the research project entitled “Development of a computational pipeline for the study of enzymatic mechanisms of 5α-reductases and other biomolecular systems”. Testosterone, the most abundant androgen in serum, is involved in many biological processes, such as fetal prostate and male external genitalia development and pubertal growth of facial and body hair. However, some health conditions are caused by unbalanced levels of testosterone and their related forms, namely acne, hirsutism, male pattern baldness, benign prostate hyperplasia, and prostate cancer, which affects 1.4M men yearly.
In this project, Henrique Fernandes proposes to study computationally a family of 3 enzymes involved in the conversion of testosterone in their active forms. The idea is to provide insights on how we can develop specific inhibitory drugs for those enzymes, providing safer and more efficient therapies for testosterone-related diseases.
Inês Mollet, researcher at the Molecular Mechanisms of Disease Lab at UCIBIO-NOVA, will be investigating enteric neuroimmune and neuroendocrine communication as a novel therapeutic target for diabetes. Diabetes prevalence worldwide is estimated at 9.3% (463 million people) and global cost over 700$ billion, with Portugal ranking in the highest incidence bracket. The intestine is the largest neuro-endocrine organ in the body where the immune system plays a central role as an interface between the body and the environment.
Immune and nervous systems are tightly integrated, each capable of influencing the other. In diabetes little is known about enteric neural and immune deficits and possible links to diet. The main idea of the project is that the small intestine is central to the development of diabetes. The main aim of the project is to determine whether inadequate diet can induce changes in intestinal neuroimmune and neuroendocrine signals that could trigger the development of diabetes, and how specific dietary components might be protective against the development of diabetes. The importance for society of this research is clear, as it could potentially lead to knowledge of the fundamental cause of T2D, as well as focused and informed dietary strategies, or pharmacological intervention, for the prevention of diabetes worldwide, turning a chronic debilitating disease into effective diabetes prevention and possibly even remission.
Get to know more about the five UCIBIO awardees
Ana Patrícia Rodrigo is a researcher with special interest in the fields of marine environmental science, with emphasis on biotechnology and ecotoxicology. Her interest in environmental toxicology began as with her M.Sc in environmental engineering, where she focused on the negative effects of pollution onto biodiversity. Ana Patrícia’s next endeavour related to marine biotechnology and she began working on bioactives from marine worms, which intensified her interest for this field of research. She then proceeded her studies with a PhD focused on disclosing the biotechnological potential of toxin-secreting marine annelids. More precisely, in the assessment of the potential of certain compounds for drug discovery and application in biomedical research. Ana Patrícia is now looking for applying her expertise in state-of-the-art molecular techniques in marine ecotoxicology.
Carina Esteves has a PhD in Bioengineering Systems (MIT-PT, 2021), a Master in Biotechnology (2008) and a degree in Applied Chemistry (2007), from FCT NOVA. During her PhD thesis, Carina focused on self assembled bio-based materials for gas sensing applications and proposed innovative supramolecular ionogels. Previously, she acquired experience in academia and industry in sol-gel chemistry (FCT NOVA, PT, 2006), human genetics (UB, Barcelona, Spain, 2006-2007), parasitology (IHMT NOVA, PT and Bernhard Notch Institute, Germany, 2007-2008) and surface chemistry coupled to sensing technologies (Mecwins S.A., Spain, 2010-2015). Carina is also actively involved in international and national programs for technology transfer.
Cristiano Mota graduated in Biochemistry at Universidade de Lisboa (2006) and did his Doctoral studies at Isabel Moura’s Lab, obtaining a PhD in Biochemistry from Universidade Nova de Lisboa (2011). In February 2012, he moved to the Structural Biology group, headed by Sean McSweeney, at the European Synchrotron (ESRF) in Grenoble (France). He worked (as local contact) at the Structural Biology Beamlines, providing technical support and scientific advisory to academic and industrial users. In parallel, he was involved in a project to understand the molecular basis of Deinococcus radiodurans resistance to ionizing radiation. In 2017, he returned to Portugal to the Macromolecular Crystallography Group, headed by Maria João Romão, at UCIBIO, to study the catalytic mechanisms of molybdoenzymes (aldehyde oxidases and formate dehydrogenases) and their potential application in drug clearance or reduction of CO 2 to sustainable biofuel production. Since December 2018, he is a Junior Researcher at UCIBIO and his main interests include the study of macromolecular systems with potential biotechnological applications using integrative structural biology methods.
Henrique Fernandes is a biochemist from U.Porto, with a Ph.D. in Computational Chemistry, with +6 years of experience in studying reaction mechanisms using computational simulations based on quantum and molecular mechanics, particularly enzymes associated with human diseases and industrial applications. Moreover, he has also developed several scientific and educational software applications.
Inês Mollet is a researcher in the field of Molecular Mechanisms of Disease. With a PhD in Biomedical Sciences from Instituto de Medicina Molecular in 2009 (FMUL, Portugal) she then continued a research career at Imperial College London (UK), Lund University Diabetes Centre (Sweden), and NOVA Medical School (UNL, Portugal) covering work on hereditary haemorrhagic telangiectasia and iron intake, cardiovascular disease, islet cell exocytosis, diabetes molecular mechanisms and genetic epidemiology, stroke and neuroimmune response to ischemic conditioning, studying pathophysiology in both rodent models and human cohorts, and publishing 30 articles in peer reviewed journals. Currently Inês Mollet leads a research project based at UCIBIO / REQUINTE (FCT-NOVA, UNL, Portugal) on the role of enteric neuroendocrine signalling in the aetiology and remission of diabetes with funding from British Society for Neuroendocrinology and more recently by the Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia through a 2021 Exploratory Project Grant and a 2022 Individual Scientific Employment Stimulus Grant.