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Zita Santos awarded with a prestigious ERC Starting Grant

Animals are composed of different cell types with different functions. For animal organs to achieve their functions, the metabolic requirements of each cell type need to be coordinated at the level of the whole-organism via nutrition. This integration between tissues and organs is important for regulating animal physiology, namely reproduction. Now, Zita Santos was awarded a 1.5 M Euros Starting Grant by the European Research Council to study the interplay between nutrition and female fertility. Zita Santos, who is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Champalimaud Foundation, will establish herself as a group leader of a new laboratory at the Instituto de Medicina Molecular João Lobo Antunes (iMM), in Lisbon, starting in January 2023.

Cellular metabolism, a group of chemical reactions fueled by dietary nutrients, provides all cells with the necessary goods to support their functions. But different cell types have different nutritional requirements and to achieve the integration between tissues, animals use extensive networks of communication. The researcher will use the fruit fly, an established animal model, to discover novel mechanisms regulating the integration of cellular metabolism with tissue functions and inter-organ communication to control reproduction. Production of female oocytes, which underlies female fertility, is a phenomenal process to study those complex interactions as it requires a high and balanced nutrition and the combined action of multiple organs controlled by hormones. “Oocyte formation is an extraordinary display of the communication and function as a whole of our organism. It even resembles an orchestra. All musicians come together, as the organs in our body do, to play the same melody. To achieve their final aim, the musicians need instruments, as the cells need nutrients. These instruments must be balanced and in perfect tune”, says Zita Santos.

“On one hand, because metabolic processes are highly conserved across all living organisms, this work will allow us to understand general principles by which nutrition affects animal functions. On the other hand, metabolic dysfunctions including obesity and diabetes are linked to many human conditions including female infertility and this work will help to reveal new possible strategies to tackle female infertility”, says Zita Santos on the work she will develop using the awarded funds.

The researcher will establish a laboratory at iMM to study the regulation of animal physiology by the interaction between cellular metabolism, tissue functions and communication between organs. On the recognition of her work and new laboratory, Zita Santos states: “High impact research requires funding – to recruit talented collaborators, to pay for reagents and services, and to communicate and share our science. Having been awarded with an ERC starting grant will allow me to support my research program for the next 5 years and launch myself as a junior group leader. I am very excited to join the scientific community at the iMM where I will materialize my scientific vision and where I will have the opportunity to bridge fundamental with applied research.“.

The European Research Council, set up by the European Union in 2007, is the premier European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. It funds creative researchers of any nationality and age, to run projects based across Europe. The research program that Zita Santos will carry out in a new laboratory at iMM will not only help women to increase their reproductive success but also greatly impact other aspects of their health and life quality.