Research news

The University of Ljubljana has been granted its sixth prestigious project by the European Research Council (ERC)

Asst. Prof. Anna Dragoš, PhD. Photo: Željko Stavanić/IFP

Publish Date: 12.01.2022

Category: Researchers in focus , ERC & MSCA, Our contribution to sustainable development goals

Sustainable development goals: 3 Good health and well-being, 4 Quality education, 9 Industry, innovation and infrastructure, 14 Life below water, 15 Life on land (Indicators)

Using the acquired funds in the amount of EUR 2.2 million, Asst. Prof. Anna Dragoš, PhD, will research bacterial viruses.

Asst. Prof. Anna Dragoš, PhD, of the Biotechnical Faculty, University of Ljubljana, a prominent researcher in the field of viral bacterial interactions, has acquired funds from the European Research Council (ERC). She has received a EUR 2.2 million grant for the project entitled PHAGECONTROL – The evolution of host manipulation by bacteriophage, of which EUR 1.5 million will be intended for the study and EUR 0.7 million for a microscope which will enable three-dimensional work with the smallest particles, such as viruses. As Asst. Prof. Anna Dragoš, PhD noted: "We envisage a large potential of discovering a significant part of the genetic ‘black box’ of viruses and new antimicrobial substances transferred by viruses. These could prove to be useful in medicine, for example as alternatives to antibiotics." This project will set up new methods and create new molecular tools to study viral transfer, which in the future could also help improve the accuracy of predictions on the spread of epidemics. The understanding of bacterial viruses which are incorporated into bacterial DNA can bring us closer to the proper understanding of the role of (retro)viruses in human evolution.

When this project was confirmed, Asst. Prof. Anna Dragoš, PhD, expressed her excitement over being able to conduct her research using such a precise microscope. "For almost two years, we have all been battling a pandemic caused by a virus. Bacteria also constantly fight viruses which enter them, assume control, multiply and then produce hundreds of viral particles which destroy the bacteria upon their release. But there are also other types of viruses which remain dormant inside a bacterial cell, like HIV in humans before AIDS symptoms become manifest. Most bacteria, almost 70 percent of them, are infected with so-called dormant viruses, which are a major puzzle to us all. It is known, however, that they alter bacterial cells. Our study will address how they can change bacteria and whether this involves a symbiosis or manipulation by the parasites. In higher developed animals, this form of manipulation is most known in ants, whereby parasitic fungi attack the ant’s nervous system, so they can spread easier and faster. Infected ants then involuntarily climb plant stems, and after biting the stems they die, which in turn accelerates the spread of the parasites."

Phagecontrol1-obrezanaLeft picture: A bacterial virus from the group of regulatory switches, photographed using an electron microscope. Right picture: Bacillus subtilis bacterial cells marked with a red fluorescent protein and photographed using a fluorescence microscope. Source: BF UL

The research project entitled PHAGECONTROL - The evolution of host manipulation by bacteriophage will employ five researchers led by Asst. Prof. Anna Dragoš, PhD. They will study viruses which enter bacteria and change their properties by integrating viral DNA into bacterial DNA. Some changed properties of bacteria may be positive and beneficial for humans, while others may transform harmless bacteria into pathogenic ones. Asst. Prof. Anna Dragoš, PhD, further explains: "In the first phase, we will study how viruses can affect changes in bacterial behaviour; the second phase will address molecular mechanisms responsible for such changes and in the third phase it will be tested whether viruses change bacterial behaviour by cooperation or manipulation. It is my hypothesis that the most important cases of parasitic manipulation will be found in phages, and these will help us understand and control bacteria and their influences." She says that it is important to understand how viruses achieve this manipulation, as there is an increasing need to find new ways to control bacteria. Specifically, the Bacillus subtilis bacterium will be studied, which is strongly influenced by the Regulatory Switch (RS) virus. The RS virus has a proved effect on a wide range of bacterial properties, including sporulation, biofilm formation, mutation rate or bacteriocin production. The study will be done using the latest molecular methods and a new, higher performance microscope. The objective of this project is to demonstrate that parasitic manipulation is an important factor in bacterial ecology and evolution, and many bacteria are controlled by their viruses.


Picture: A virus can infect bacterial cells and integrate its DNA into bacterial DNA. Source: BF UL

This new knowledge will have applicable value

The study results may reveal the influence of viruses on industrially crucial bacterial properties, such as growth rate, biofilm formation and production of bioactive compounds, as well as genetic stability and sporulation. Understanding how phages accomplish this manipulation will be crucial in the coming period, wherever new methods of bacterial control are needed. This may be followed by new approaches in biotechnology, i.e. virus oriented approaches which can be used to modify bacteria for the benefit of humans.

Prof. Nataša Poklar Ulrih, PhD, Dean of the Biotechnical Faculty, University of Ljubljana, said this about the research breakthrough made by Asst. Prof. Anna Dragoš, PhD: "To support innovative breakthroughs in the European Union, each year the European Research Council, which was founded by the European Commission, selects and finances projects of the best European researchers. We are proud that in 2021 an ERC project was also granted to a researcher of the Biotechnical Faculty, University of Ljubljana. I would like to congratulate our colleague Asst. Prof. Anna Dragoš, PhD, and wish her much success in her further research." On this occasion, Prof. Gregor Majdič, PhD, Chancellor of the University of Ljubljana, said: "The University of Ljubljana is proud of all our researchers. Asst. Prof. Anna Dragoš, PhD, whom I would like to sincerely congratulate for this enviable success, has proved that we can compete with the best in the world. The granting of an ERC project is therefore of utmost significance for the researcher and the University, as it clearly shows that we rank among the outstanding universities on the European scale."

Anna Dragoš-komoraPicture: Asst. Prof. Anna Dragoš, PhD, in the in the laboratory of the Biotechnical Faculty of the University of Ljubljana.  Photo: Željko Stavanić/IFP

"In 2018, when I first considered applying for a project with the ERC, I contacted the University of Ljubljana, whereupon I was immediately offered professional and financial support. In addition to materials, trainings and consultations, the University Research Activity Service also financed my preparations for the interview from its Development Fund. At this time as well, after the project has already been granted funding, their support in preparing for the start of the project has been invaluable," added Asst. Prof. Anna Dragoš, PhD, who is now the third researcher from the University of Ljubljana who has managed to acquire the prestigious ERC project. In 2011, the first Slovene ERC project was granted to a researcher in the field of meteorology, Prof. Nedjeljka Žagar, PhD; this was an ERC Starting Grant at the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics of the University of Ljubljana. And in 2016, Prof. Marta Verginella, PhD, of the Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana, acquired an ERC Advanced Grant. Since 2007, when the European Research Council started financing projects, six projects have thus been granted to researchers from the University of Ljubljana.

About Asst. Prof. Anna Dragoš, PhD

Asst. Prof. Anna Dragoš, PhD, was born in 1985 in Poland. She graduated from the University of Wroclaw in 2009 and received her PhD five years later at the Biotechnical Faculty, University of Ljubljana. For over six years, she was active abroad (at the Institute of Immunology and Experimental Therapy of the Polish Academy of Science, the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, and the Technical University of Denmark). She has won several prestigious scholarships, e.g. the Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship and the H.C. Oersted Fellowship, and has published her research results in prestigious journals (Nature Microbiology, Current Biology, Nature Communications, ISME J or PNAS). She returned to Slovenia in April 2021 as project leader for the ARRS Complementary Scheme. Last year, she also became the University of Ljubljana’s representative for the project EUTOPIA Young Leaders Academy. Her scope of interest primarily comprises basic research in the field of bacterial viruses. She is employed by the Biotechnical Faculty, University of Ljubljana, at the Department of Microbiology, as a member of the Chair of Microbial Ecology and Physiology.  

Anna Dragoš-portretAsst. Prof. Anna Dragoš, PhD. Photo: Željko Stavanić/IFP

European Research Council

The European Research Council was founded by the European Commission to provide funding for excellent researchers and their research teams conducting breakthrough or high-risk studies which bear the promise of new fundamental knowledge. ERC calls are characterised by promoting pioneering studies, i.e. those fundamental studies which may lead to significant discoveries and, in the following stages, also to applied studies and practical innovations relevant for Europe’s competitiveness. More information can be found at the following  link.

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