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Research on sex in malaria parasites granted prestigious EU grant

Umea University


IMAGE: Professor in Biotechnology with an emphasis on Molecular Genetics. view more 

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ERC Advanced Grants - the European Union's most prestigious research funding programme - is granting Professor Oliver Billker EUR 2.5 million for a period of five years for research on the sexual biology of malaria parasites. Molecular biologist Oliver Billker is a new top recruit to Umeå University.

"This is a dream come true! Without this grant our research couldn't be done at the scale that is required for success. I cannot wait to get started on recruiting a team and beginning the new research in Umeå," says Oliver Billker, incoming professor at the Department of Molecular Biology at Umeå University in Sweden.

Malaria still kills almost half a million people each year, most of them are children under five. The disease is caused by a parasite that grows inside red blood cells and gets transmitted by mosquitoes. New drugs and vaccines that help eradicate malaria by blocking mosquito transmission are urgently required. With his team, Oliver Billker studies the cell biology of parasites and the molecular basis for parasite infection with the aim of finding new intervention targets.

Malaria parasites can only infect mosquitoes if at the same time they reproduce sexually, through cells that resemble egg and sperm. For the male to fertilise the female, both have to leave their human red blood cells, which makes them vulnerable. The new project is about understanding the sexual biology of malaria parasites, and how we can exploit it to block malaria transmission by mosquitoes.

"In order to achieve this, we will map the functions of about 700 parasite genes in sexual reproduction. It would be impossible to do this one gene at a time. Our new idea is to make a large collection of barcoded mutants to study the functions of hundreds of parasite genes simultaneously," says Oliver Billker.

At the end of the project, the researchers will be able to propose new ways in which malaria transmission to mosquitoes may be prevented. It will also result in novel fundamental insights into how sexual processes have changed during the evolution of organisms.

Oliver Billker is starting his employment at the Department of Molecular Biology at Umeå University this September. Currently, he is active at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in the UK, which is one of the world's leading genome research centres.

"This is a new phase in our family life and we are all incredibly excited about the new opportunities and challenges. We look forward to meeting new colleagues and making new friends in a more close-knit community. We won't just need to learn Swedish, but also skiing and ice-skating, but we feel completely up to the challenges," he says.



Oliver Billker was born in Lüneburg, Germany, in 1969. He holds a first degree in Biology from Berlin and completed his doctoral level qualification at Imperial College London, the UK, in 1999. After his postdoc at the Max-Planck-Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin, he built a team at Imperial College London with the support of personal fellowships from the British Medical Research Council (2002-2012). In 2007, he relocated to the Wellcome Sanger Institute, which is one of the world's leading genome research centres. From September 2018, Oliver Billker will hold a professorship at the Department of Molecular Biology at Umeå University.

About the grant

Project title: "Sex in malaria parasites - from genome scale functional gene profiling to transmission blocking intervention targets"

Approved grant: EUR 2.5 million for a period of five years from ERC Advanced Grants, an EU research programme.

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