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From protein bonding to Czech-Russian relations. Grant Agency of MUNI supports research for 7 years

Masaryk University's internal agency primarily funds excellent science. Out of 176 project proposals submitted, 30 have so far been successful.

The Grant Agency of Masaryk University (GAMU) has completed its first seven-year plan. By last year, it had helped almost a hundred projects under its research support agenda, having distributed over CZK 160 million in funding. The largest amount was allocated through five research programmes primarily supporting research excellence.

The in-house agency also supports specific student research and scientific conferences and, as part of a Rector's programme, student journals and outstanding theses. However, the agency’s primary purpose is to assist scientists.

This purpose is currently being accomplished through a support programme promoting quality and excellence, which facilitates the publication of excellent results in high-profile journals. Moreover, support is also provided by helping create international grant applications and funding individual frontier research projects where the investigators have a chance to be awarded, for example, a European Research Council (ERC) grant in the future. Recently, the MUNI Award in Science and Humanities has also been introduced to attract outstanding scientists to Masaryk University (MU).

Since its creation, GAMU has also been fostering interdisciplinary research, seeking primarily to interconnect different departments and faculties in order to generate original solutions.

Teams may receive up to five million crowns for their projects for a period of up to three years. “In the seven years, 80 reviewers were tasked with evaluating 176 project proposals, of which 30 were eventually funded,” said Petr Dvořák, Vice-Rector for Research, during the presentation of the results of four interdisciplinary projects at the GAMU final review conference in June.

The projects presented included research conducted by MU’s Faculty of Social Studies entitled “Russia in the Friend vs. Foe Terms: Czech Reflection”, a study on “The Influence of Cartographic Visualisation on Success in Solving Practical and Learning Spatial Assignments” coordinated by MU’s Faculty of Education, “An Analysis of Gastrointestinal Microbiome in Patients with Primary Immunodeficiency” led by MU’s Faculty of Medicine and, finally, a project for the visualisation of protein complexes managed by the Faculty of Informatics.

The project focusing on relations between the Czechia and Russia was voted the best by the committee and was A-rated, representing the highest grade. The remaining three projects received grade B.

Jan Holzer

Russia vs. the Czechia

The study of relations with Russia, involving experts from the Faculty of Social Studies, Faculty of Arts and Faculty of Economics and Administration of Masaryk University and the Czech Academy of Sciences, was presented by the political scientist Jan Holzer. The authors examined the current security dimensions of Czech-Russian relations from a variety of perspectives.

“We tried to apply the concept of hybrid conflict to this relationship, which is a very topical issue now that the strategy of how to attack others within international relations has changed. On this question, everyone is concerned with how the external actors operate but we believe that the success of hybrid strategies lies in who they are aimed at, whether there is a target actor on the other side who is responsive to such activities. The Czechia is an excellent example in this sense because there is an audience for a Russian campaign for a variety of historical, linguistic, economic and other reasons,” said Holzer.

Out of several findings, the project highlighted two books. The first one, devoted to militant right-wing extremism in Russia, was published by the British publisher Routledge last year. Another title, “In the Shadow of Russia: the Czech Republic and Small Central European Countries”, is in preparation for publication by another prestigious British publishing house this year. Holzer’s summary of the book’s conclusions is that Russia’s potential to operate internationally and to assert its influence derives primarily from how strong or weak the other party is in the subject area.

How proteins bond

The exploration of the topic of international relations was followed by the discussion of a project that also dealt with interaction but at the level of molecules. The project, the result of collaboration with natural scientists, was presented by Barbora Kozlíková from MU’s Faculty of Informatics. Her main aim was to create a tool for the spatial visualisation of protein complexes and, in particular, of protein interaction sites, which may facilitate designing complexes applicable in industry and medicine.

“Today, dozens of computational systems are used by experts to predict how proteins can be structured and how they can interact. Their problem is that they can produce dozens to hundreds of possible solutions, which scientists then have to gradually examine to see if they are biochemically relevant,” said Kozlíková.

It was this lengthy analysis that the experts wanted to avoid and thus they created an open-source tool called COZOID (COntact ZOne IDentifier for protein-protein interactions). The tool analyses large sets of possible interactions, only selects those connections that are relevant and makes it possible to observe the very site where proteins bond.

Petr Kubíček

3D cartography

The third project, presented by Hana Svatoňová representing MU’s Faculty of Education and Petr Kubíček representing the university’s Faculty of Science, dealt with three-dimensional imaging and its interpretation. The project also involved experts from the university’s Faculty of Informatics and the Faculty of Arts. They jointly examined the question of how 3D imaging, which is increasingly used, and its different variants affect spatial orientation and the perception of depth and other dimensions. With regard to the use of various methods to monitor how human test subjects interact with tasks, they have even developed new tools for eye tracking, to name but one example.

“We studied people’s perceptions of space in a 3D environment, the differences when watching a 3D image in 2D and watching a three-dimensional environment using polarising glasses and then in virtual reality. In cooperation with schools, we also explored where virtual reality could be useful,” said Kubíček, explaining the team’s work.

The series of studies included a building evacuation simulation, in which one group studied a standard evacuation plan and another group navigated by a virtual tour of the evacuation route. Although the gap in their performance was not large, the two groups interacted differently with the surroundings and developed entirely different perceptions. The first group had a good contextual grasp of the length of the route and of how many times they had to turn, for example, but could not describe the place, while the other one remembered the different landmarks in the building instead.

The effects of the microbiome on immunity

The last evaluated project was devoted to the study of the gastrointestinal microbiome in patients with primary immunodeficiency and involved scientists from MU’s Faculty of Medicine, Faculty of Informatics and the CEITEC Institute.

Patients with this diagnosis have low levels of certain antibodies in the blood and are susceptible to various infections. The causes of the disease are not known but, in addition to genetic influences, the external environment contributes to its development. The microbiome refers to the population of microorganisms in the body which affect the human organism. Besides being involved in the body's metabolism, it also fights pathogens and stimulates the immune system.

Therefore, the experts wanted to look at the differences in the microbiome of the digestive system in sick and healthy people. They looked not only at the representation of individual bacterial species but also at their whole genome and their metabolic products. “We found out that there was very little difference between the microbiome’s bacterial composition in individual patients but that it contained more unique genes, which means significant functional variation and the production of different metabolites,” said principal investigator David Šmajs.