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START-Grant for IMP scientist David Keays

17 Jun 2013

On June 17, Australian biologist David Keays, a Group Leader at Vienna’s Research Institute of Molecular Pathology (IMP), was accepted into the START-Programme of the Austrian Science Fund FWF. He will receive substantial funding for his research efforts on the cellular basis of magnetoreception.

David Keays (37) studied Science and Law at the Universities of Queensland, Melbourne and Oxford. Following a Wellcome Trust Training Fellowship, he became the IMP’s first Fellow in 2008 and was promoted to Group Leader in 2013.  

Currently, the research efforts of David Keays focus on the mysterious magnetic sense of animals. This sense enables migrating birds to use the earth’s magnetic field for orientation when travelling long distances. The going theory postulates a kind of small intracellular compass - iron particles within nerve cells that serve as magnetic sensors. Which cells they are and where they are located has not been clarified.

In search of this hard-to-grasp biological compass, the group of David Keays employs a wide spectrum of molecular, magnetic, histological and physiological methods. Recently, the scientists identified a group of sensory nerve cells in the inner ear of birds that contain tiny iron particles – exactly one particle per cell. The team will now focus their research on whether these striking structures can detect magnetic fields and on identifying the genes involved in magnetic sensing.

"It is a great thrill to have been awarded the START prize. This prize will enable me to undertake additional experiments on how animals detect magnetic fields”, says David Keays.

Finding out how magnetoreception works will be a huge achievement. It could provide the basis for scientists to turn to other biological systems and make them susceptible to magnetism. This technology might be useful in selectively switching on nerve cells in patients with neurological diseases.

The START grants were awarded for the 18th time this year. In total, nine outstanding young researchers were selected into the programme out of 96 applicants. The award recommendation was prepared by an international jury.

The START grant is the FWF's largest and most prestigious award for early-stage researchers. On the basis of their scientific track records, recipients are given the opportunity to plan their research work on a long-term basis with sufficient financial security and to establish, expand and lead their own research group independently. START grants are endowed with up to EUR 1.2 million each.

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