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Dr Jane Usher, Dr Luis Yanez Guerra and Dr Jasmine Ono

Three Exeter researchers win Discovery Fellowships

Three University of Exeter researchers have been awarded prestigious Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) Discovery Fellowships.

BBSRC awards the fellowships to early-career researchers with the "potential to become a future research leader".

The Exeter researchers are Dr Jasmine Ono of the Environment and Sustainability Institute, Dr Luis Yanez Guerra of the Living Systems Institute, and Dr Jane Usher of the MRC Centre for Medical Mycology.

Dr Usher's work focusses on the human fungal pathogen Candida glabrata, which can cause illness including serious disease in patients with impaired immune systems.

The pathogen can resist many immune responses and anti-fungal drugs, so Dr Usher will sequence the genomes of highly resistant strains to improve scientific knowledge and pave the way for better treatments.

"I am hugely excited to be given this opportunity to explore and develop this exciting area of research on antimicrobial resistance and stress adaptation in human fungal pathogens," Dr Usher said.

"I am greatly looking forward to starting my independent research programme whilst continuing to be member of the MRC Centre for Medical Mycology.

"I am very grateful for all the support from everyone in the centre and the Biosciences community at Exeter throughout the entire application process."

Dr Yanez-Guerra studies monoamines, one of the most important groups of neurotransmitter molecules.

Found in the brain, nerve tissue and adrenal glands, monoamines help to regulate processes such as emotions, memory, blood-flow, appetite, sleep and cognition.

Intriguingly, monoamines have been identified not only in animals but also in plants and fungi – indicating that the occurrence of these neurotransmitters predates the existence of the nervous system.

The goal of this fellowship is to understand, how and when during animal evolution the monoamines become neurotransmitters in animals.

"I am very happy to receive this fellowship, it means a lot to me," said Dr Yanez-Guerra.

"I have always been interested in the origins and evolution of the nervous system.

"I hope this is the start of a fruitful career in the field of evolutionary neurobiology.

"Also, I hope to reveal the evolution and origin of monoamines as neurotransmitters."

Dr Ono examines the evolution of "reproductive barriers" – genetic or environmental factors that prevent species inter-breeding and producing offspring that can reproduce.

Using three species of microbial yeast, Dr Ono will investigate the genetic reasons why adaptation to external factors (temperature) can lead to sterile offspring. 

"I am very honoured to have been chosen as a BBSRC Discovery Fellow," Dr Ono said.

"This opportunity will give me the chance to explore a fundamental biological question: why do species exist?

"I will do so by investigating the genetic basis of temperature adaptation in yeast, an increasingly important trait with climate change.

"My research will have potential applications to biotechnology and our understanding of fungal pathogens.

"This fellowship will also allow me to grow my scientific identity, with the support of the amazing team at the University of Exeter, and I look forward to getting started."

Professor Neil Gow, Exeter's Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Impact), said: "I am delighted that three of the fifteen BBSRC Discovery fellowships have been awarded to early career researchers (ECRs) at Exeter.

"This is an endorsement of the excellence of our ECR research base and the mentorship and support that our fellows enjoy from their peers."

Date: 10 February 2022

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