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DKK 18.6 million for research on species formation

The European Research Council has granted Professor Mikkel Heide Schierup from the Bioinformatics Research Centre at Aarhus University EUR 2.5 million for his research into how X and Y chromosomes make primates form new species.

Professor Mikkel Heide Schierup from the Bioinformatics Research Center (BiRC) at Aarhus University receives EUR 2.5 million for research into primate speciation. Photo: Private photo

Mikkel Heide Schierup has received the EUR 2.5 million, corresponding to approx. DKK 18.6 million, in the form of an ERC Advanced Grant. ERC Advanced Grants are awarded to exceptional research leaders who have already produced outstanding research results for new, ground-breaking research projects over a five-year period.

Professor Schierup's ground-breaking project is called ‘X-chromosome driven speciation through testes-expressed genes: comparative population genomics meets scRNA analysis in primates’. Fortunately, the project title has been shortened to the acronym Xspect.

The purpose of the project is to learn about the processes that govern the formation of new primate species, including ourselves.

Mikkel Heide Schierup has already demonstrated that our gender chromosomes play a very important role in blocking two species from having offspring together. This means that when two populations of the same species are becoming two different species and they produce offspring, then the males with two different gender chromosomes, X and Y, will almost always become sterile.

Hypothesis meets new technology

"Now we want to study how gender chromosome genes are expressed during the formation of sperm in the testicles of 16 different monkey species. We have long had the hypothesis that the X and Y chromosomes fight an evolutionary battle to get into as many living sperm cells as possible. This intragenomic conflict is called the "meiotic drive" and is one of the strongest evolutionary forces we know. Now we have an opportunity to find out why," explains Mikkel Heide Schierup.

This is where single-cell RNA sequencing comes in. This relatively new and revolutionary technology makes it possible to see which genes are on or off in individual cells. Including during the formation of sperm cells.

Mikkel Heide Schierup and his research team will test the hypothesis of the gender conflict in testicles by combining the analysis of the entire sperm cell formation with evolutionary studies of the relevant genes, not least in known hybrid zones between different monkey species and ape populations, including the encounters between modern people and Neanderthals approximately 50,000 years ago.


Professor Mikkel Heide Schierup

Bioinformatics Research Centre,
Aarhus University,
E-mail: mheide@birc.au.dk
Mobile: +45 2778 2889