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HFSP grant to study fertilisation

01 Apr 2020
Scanning electron micrograph of a zebrafish sperm on the surface of an egg (photo: Sarah Herberg)

Researchers from the lab of Andrea Pauli, together with lead partners in Barcelona and colleagues in Shanghai, will receive joint funding of around one million USD for a project that studies how sperm and egg interact during fertilisation from a biophysical perspective. The project is one of eight Young Investigator Grants chosen for funding in the latest call of the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) and was ranked first among applications.

Fertilisation, the fusion of egg and sperm, marks the beginning of life of all sexually reproducing organisms. Despite its fundamental role, we still understand very little about how sperm-egg interaction is controlled. Although fertilisation has caught the interest of scientists for many decades, few studies have focused on the dynamic process in which the two gametes get together, interact and fuse. In particular, the role of the egg has been neglected, with sperm generally viewed as the motile and therefore more active partner during gamete encounter. 

A multi-national research project, coordinated by Verena Ruprecht of the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) in Barcelona, will tackle this fundamental gap in our knowledge. Taking a cross-disciplinary approach, the project will draw from the expertise of two more research teams, the lab of Andrea Pauli at the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology (IMP) in Vienna and the lab of Liu Yan-Jun at Fudan University in Shanghai. “Together, we will address a key open question in reproductive biology and investigate whether the egg also plays an ‘active’ role in the fertilisation process, for example by generating forces that might actively engulf the sperm”, says Andrea Pauli. Her team will provide crucial expertise in zebrafish fertilisation, which will serve as the main model system in the study.

As one of the core elements of the project, the researchers plan to pioneer a so-called ‘synthetic fertilisation synapse’, with the aim to reconstitute sperm-egg interaction dynamics. Applying state-of-the-art technologies such as high-resolution imaging and quantitative force measurements, the team of scientists is set to tackle the highly challenging problem of the biophysical control of fertilisation. Their research will provide fundamental insights into the dynamics of sperm-egg interaction and its mechanosensitive regulation. These insights promise to transform the currently rudimentary knowledge of the mechanism of fertilisation.

The project “Mechanosensitive dynamics at the fertilization synapse” (reference number RGY0079/2020) will be supported by the International Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) over a period of three years. In the latest call, 8 Young Investigator Grants and 20 Program Grants were awarded from a total of 702 letters of intent, of which 85 were selected for full application. The project involving Andrea Pauli was ranked first among the applications from young investigators.

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. It aims to promote intercontinental collaboration and training in cutting-edge, interdisciplinary research focused on the life sciences.

Image caption:
Scanning EM image of a zebrafish egg and sperm (Image: Sarah Herberg, Pauli Lab)

Related links:

Pauli Lab
Ruprecht Lab
Yan-Jun Lab
Human Frontier Science Program