19 April 2021

Villum Investigator 2021


Professor Barbara Ann Halkier is one of the top scientists who has been awarded a Villum Investigator grant of 30 million DKK.

Barbara Halkier receives Villum investigator diplomaBarbara Ann Halkier receiving the Villum Investigator diploma, 27 April 2021

The Villum investigator program gives leading researchers an outstanding opportunity and freedom to explore new dimensions of their research areas and generate important and groundbreaking knowledge for the benefit of the society.

Barbara Ann Halkier’s project is entitled ‘Unleashing the potential of transport engineering for improved traits’ and is aimed at determining the function of plant transporters and decoding the chemical language of plants to generate knowledge and molecular tools with application in sustainable agriculture.

Plant transportomics

Transport of metabolites across cellular borders is essential for plant fitness and survival, and has proven important in controlling key quality traits in agriculture. Yet, the function of thousands of transporters is largely unknown. Intriguingly, known transporters have been shown to have structurally diverse substrates that are not predictable from a chemical structure comparison. As a major transportomics endeavor, we will biochemically determine at an unprecedented scale the substrate specificity of the transporters of the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. As a novel idea, we will measure transporter activity against plant extracts with complex mixtures of metabolites as substrates. With the data, we will create first-of-its-kind database with transporter activity as a major knowledge resource and as a discovery platform for transporter identification.

Additionally, by linking transporter specificity to exuded phytochemicals and transporters present at the root and leaf epidermis under a range of stress conditions, we will identify physiologically relevant metabolite(s)-transporter pairs at these external borders, where intense signaling occur. This will provide a set of molecular tools to begin decoding the ‘what, how and why’ in plants’ communication and interaction with the surroundings.

Barbara Ann Halkier explains: “The grant gives me a unique opportunity to embark on this major endeavor to advance our understanding at the molecular level of transport processes and the chemical language of plants, both of which are vital for plant fitness and survival.”

It is expected that advancing basic knowledge about transporter function has potential to open new transport engineering applications in agriculture and synthetic biology.

As external collaborators are Professor Anders Krogh on bioinformatics and Professor Jesper Velgaard Olsen on proteomics, both from University of Copenhagen, and Associate Professor Jing-Ke Weng MIT/Whitehead Institute, USA, on structure determination on metabolites. Associate Professor Hussam Nour-Eldin, Assistant Professor Deyang Xu and DynaMo MS facility manager Dr. Christoph Crocoll are internal collaborators from Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, University of Copenhagen.

Villum foundation fra​mework

In total, 10 new Villum Investigators​ have been selected and they all have at least 10 years of groundbreaking research behind them. The team consists of six foreign and four Danish researchers, who have been selected from 72 candidates according to international practice with an assessment of the applications by VILLUM FONDEN’s working group, an assessment by three independent peers, and a final selection by the foundation’s board.

The 10 selected researchers have been a​warded a total of DKK 313 million. Besides the two researchers representing the University of Copenhagen, researchers from the Technical University of Denmark, the University of Southern Denmark and Aarhus University are among the selected researchers.

Barbara Ann Halkier’s project will start on 1 July 2021 and has a duration of 6 years.

Link to the Villum Investigator ceremony, 27 April 2021