Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences

Prof. Eivind Valen wins the ERC Consolidator Grant.

For the next five years, the ERC grant will allow Prof. Eivind Valen to develop new informatics methods to explore a basic molecular biology mystery that remains unsolved: the cap code.

Portrait of Eivind Valen
Melanie Burford

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Professor Eivind Valen has been awarded the prestigious ERC Consolidator Grant from the European Research Council (ERC) for his groundbreaking research “MaDCap: Mapping and Direct Sequencing of the Non-Canonical Cap Code” which will give insight into a very fundamental part of the cell's machinery. Eivind Valen is leading the Valen group at the Computational Biology Unit at the Department of Informatics and is an associate group leader at the Michael Sars Centre at the University of Bergen. He will receive 2 million Euros, over 23 million kroner, over the course of five years.

“I am very happy to be able to congratulate Eivind Valen with an ERC grant," said Gunn Mangerud, Dean of the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences. "For the faculty, having researchers who are successful in these types of EU programs is very important. It is a clear goal in our strategy to have more researchers who excel in arenas that support frontier science. Eivind is the faculty's 4th ERC Consolidator Grant this year and I hope this also stimulates others to apply. The ERC provides an opportunity for individual researchers to help make important scientific contributions in all our fields of research."

Deciphering the meaning of the cap code

Proteins are the machinery and building blocks of life. The instructions for making these proteins come from molecules known as messenger RNAs (mRNAs), which are copies of individual genes from the much larger DNA that comprises our genetic material. These mRNAs specify both which protein and how much of that protein should be made.

This regulation is, to a large extent, determined by the various features of the mRNA. One of the most ubiquitous of these is the 5' cap, a structure that is attached to the start of a newly-synthesized mRNA. Several decades of research have revealed that the cap is a hub for regulating the levels of proteins that the mRNA produce. A less appreciated fact is that the mRNA caps can come in many different forms and be modified in several ways resulting in many different types of caps. The combination of these different features can be considered a cap code that can destine the mRNA for different fates.

“Studying these caps has been very challenging because you cannot characterize them while they are attached to the RNA”, Valen explains. “You don’t know which cap belongs to which RNA”.  With the MaDCap project he and his team will develop a method to determine caps, and finally decipher the meaning of the cap code.

Winning the Grant

Eivind Valen had just submitted a new ERC application when Inge Jonassen, Head of the Department of Informatics came into his office to congratulate Eivind on winning the grant. "When he told me, I refused to believe him,” Eivind said. "I had put it all behind me and thought now it's time to reapply". After searching through his emails, Eivind finally discovered that he had indeed won the grant. “It was fantastic news!”

“Eivind develops new informatics methods using, among other things, machine learning in his research on basic molecular biological mechanisms”, said Inge Jonassen. “He combines informatics and experimental research and is at the forefront of both technology and informatics. This requires resources and I am very happy that Eivind has now been able to get his ERC project funded! This again shows the strength of interdisciplinary initiatives and centers such as our Computational Biology Unit, which includes researchers from five institutes at two faculties. It should also be said that Eivind is a researcher who does not give up and uses feedback on the applications to constantly improve them. It pays off!”

Head of CBU, Professor Nathalie Reuter added, "We're extremely proud of his accomplishments over the years and if possible even more so of this latest prestigious grant. Here at CBU, we have consistently worked to improve our chances of attracting funding from competitive organizations to lift the level of excellence at the center.” 

Group picture

Head of Informatics Department Inge Jonassen gives a congratulatory speech to Prof. Eivind Valen (left), alongside Dean Gunn Mangerud, Vice-rector Benedicte Carlsen, Michael Sars Centre Director Lionel Christiaen and Head of CBU, Nathalie Reuter.

Melanie Burford

Track record

Before joining the University of Bergen, Valen was granted prestigious fellowships from the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) and the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) for research projects conducted at the universities of Copenhagen and Harvard.

He was then awarded a Trond Mohn Starting Grant which provided the funds necessary to establish his own research group at CBU. Since the creation of the Valen Lab, his groundbreaking research has attracted funding from multiple sources including the Research Council of Norway and the Norwegian Cancer Society.

“Eivind’s trajectory illustrates remarkably the extraordinary potential of Norwegian scientists to excel on the international stage and hopefully paves the way for present and future generations”, says Michael Sars Centre director Lionel Christiaen. “We are delighted to have been counting Eivind among our associate groups for several years, and to have been able to support his groundbreaking research. Eivind joins a team of ERC awardees at the Centre, building upon the deep roots that anchor us within the University of Bergen, and the local and national academic networks in Norway.”

A team effort on an interdisciplinary project

Eivind credits his team for the success of his grant application, in particular, PhD student Adnan Niazi and postdoctoral researcher Jan Inge Øvrebø who contributed to writing the proposal and conducted key preliminary experiments. As for the environment, the combination of the computational environment at CBU and the experimental molecular environment at the Michael Sars Centre made the project possible. "We're both developing a new molecular method, and we are developing machine learning methods and computational methods to make sense of the data that we obtain making it a very interdisciplinary project," he said.  

Caps are a crucial step on the way of expressing genes to proteins yet there are still many things researchers have yet to understand. "What we are trying to do is something that requires a lot of effort and resources to accomplish. It was really live or die with this project, so without the ERC consolidator grant, this research wouldn’t be possible”.