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€1.2 million grant awarded to researcher Stephen K. Jones and his team at VU Life Sciences Centre

Dr Stephen Knox Jones Jr, a biochemist at Vilnius University Life Sciences Center (LSC), and his team have received a €1.2 million grant by the European Research Council. Spanning the next five years, Dr Jones will lead a project which aims to improve gene editing techniques.

High award for Lithuanian science 

“I see the significance of this grant at several levels – national, university and personal. At the national level, it shows that Lithuania’s investments in science pay off, and that its contributions to European research are coming back. This creates a cycle that is important for impactful funding. Furthermore, this reflects the high calibre of academic research in Lithuania.

It is also an excellent accolade for the university. First, it delivers an essential message to our community that these grants are achievable. Second, it will have a significant impact in a process that I call institutional memory. Since our application was successful, the entire team involved in the submission phase has gained knowledge that they can share and employ for future projects of similar scale”, says Dr Stephen K. Jones.

For the scientist himself, this application, which required enormous effort and detailed planning, is an outside validation that he is on the right path: “Will I have complete freedom now that I received funding? Not really, because when receiving this amount of money, you are expected to achieve big goals, to make big contributions to society, which is binding. However, now I can concentrate on the research and not think about money.”

The aim of the study is to extend and improve the use of gene editing tools

Combining chemistry, biology and epigenetics, the project Profile nucleases and Repurpose Off-Targets to Expand Gene Editing aims to discover and characterize broad classes of programmable nucleases, focusing on uncovering their mechanisms of specificity. We pursue this goal by engineering and harnessing next-generation biochemistry methods. These combine high-throughput DNA sequencing with classical biochemistry and bioinformatics.

“Gene editing allows the genetic content of a living organism to be altered by changing the sequence of DNA in cells. However, we aim to improve existing gene editing tools to make them safer and more widely used. Our project proposes two ways to do this“, says Stephen K. Jones.

More efficient crop production and medical diagnostics    

Society can benefit from more efficient gene editing technologies in many areas. In particular, in the food industry, gene editing can lead to more nutritious and high-yielding fruit, vegetables and cereals, as well as more resilient varieties that can withstand extreme weather caused by climate change. Gene editing techniques could also lead to more accurate disease diagnosis and faster elimination of genetic diseases.

For the 2022 ERC Starting Grants, 2932 applications were submitted, and 408 were selected for funding after two selection rounds. These grants are awarded to researchers 2-7 years after the award of their PhD. This is the first time Lithuania has received an ERC research grant for early career researchers. The grant amounts to €1.2 million over 5 years.

Lithuania hosts the European Molecular Biology Laboratory Partnership Institute for Genome Editing Technologies at the Vilnius University Life Sciences Center aiming to advance gene editing technologies. Six international research groups work at the EMBL Partnership Institute in Vilnius, each tackling a different facet of gene editing. One of them is the Jones!Lab, focused on research and development of novel genome editing tools.