A CBGP researcher obtains a ‘Starting Grant’

Doctor Manuel González Guerrero receives the only European Research Council Starting grant awarded in 2013 to a Spanish project in the Biotechnology field


Doctor Manuel González Guerrero, Ramón y Cajal fellow at Technical University of Madrid (UPM), has obtained the only Starting Grant awarded by the European Research Council (ERC) to a Spanish project in the Biotechnology area in its most recent call. The research he leads, related to plant metal homeostasis in beneficial host-microbe interactions, will be carried out at Centre for Plant Biotechnology and Genomics (CBGP in Spanish), integrated by UPM and the National Institute for Agriculture and Food Research and Technology (INIA).


Agriculture faces the challenge of producing enough food for a growing population, warns the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This challenge must be faced in a simultaneous effort to reduce the use of chemical fertilizers, responsible for the great success of agriculture in the XX century, but also potent polluting agents. Moreover, it is not enough to increase crop productivity, its nutritional properties must also be potentiated.


As a result, understanding how plants incorporate some transition metals (such as iron, copper or zinc) is of great relevance. These elements are essential oligonutrients, since they enable plants to carry out crucial biochemical processes, among them respiration, photosynthesis, defence against pathogens or nitrogen fixation. However, low metal bioavailability in most agricultural soils limits these reactions, and consequently crop yields.


An improved metal uptake would result in greater biomass produced by a more efficient photosynthesis, a better tolerance to diseases and stresses, and in the case of legumes, an increased nitrogen fixation rate and, consequently, a reduced dependence of polluting chemical fertilizers. Furthermore, the improved plant uptake of these essential metal oligonutrients would result in an improved bioavailability in fruits for human and animal diet, and therefore, a better nutritional value. This is important, since two of the three main causes of malnutrition in the world are iron and zinc deficiencies in the diet.


The research project led by doctor Manuel González Guerrero intends to improve the uptake and distribution of these nutrients using the plant-associated microorganisms. As it happens in animals, plants live in close relationship with a number of microorganisms that integrate their microbiome. Among the microbiome main activities is to increase nutrient uptake. In this project, the researchers plan to study, using model legume Medicago truncatula, how the two main microbiome components (rhizobia and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi) act as metal acceptors and donors, what the molecular basis of this exchange are, and how to engineer them to improve plant iron, copper and zinc nutrition. A multidisciplinary approach will be used to attain these goals, combining classical plant physiology methods with high energy physics.


The European Research Council funds European research at the highest excellence standards. The Starting Grants, with an average budget of one and a half million euros, aim to support young researchers to establish their own research topics and teams. In its last call, 14 Spanish scientists were awarded one of these prestigious Starting Grants to carry out research on Physical and Engineering Sciences, Life Sciences, and Social Sciences and Humanities. Only four Spanish projects have been selected in the Life Sciences panel and only this project from the CBGP researcher in the Biotechnology area.


The evaluation of the scientific proposals to be funded is solely based in scientific excellence, both the proposal and the researcher’s. As a consequence, the submitted projects must be at the frontier of their field, with ambitious goals that go beyond the current scientific knowledge. As a prerequisite, the selected researchers must have shown independent, relevant, and innovative scientific contributions in their fields.



The Starting Grant, due to its funds and selection criteria, is an international indicator of excellence both of its principal investigator and the institution where the research is carried out. The results of the last ERC call place Spain as the sixth country in the European Union in its capability to attract young research talent, and the eighth when all the countries in the European Research Area are taken into account (the 27 EU country members and 13 Associated States to the Seventh Framework Programme).


Manuel González Guerrero, doctor in Biochemistry by the University of Granada, has built his career participating in a number of research projects in prestigious institutions in Spain and abroad. He has obtained fellowships and contracts as competitive as the Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowships and the Ramón y Cajal contract. He is author of twenty research papers published in high impact science journals such as Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA or Journal of Biological Chemistry.


CBGP focuses its research activity in the fields of genetics and plant development, and of plant interactions with other organisms and the physical environment, with the goal of advancing in a knowledge-based bioeconomy and facilitating the optimization of agrifood and forestry production. CBGP was created in 2005 and it has been operative since 2008 after opening its new building at the Montegancedo Campus of UPM. It is organized in 24 research groups that include 44 staff research doctors, 41 postdoctoral fellows, 51 graduate students, and 27 technicians. In addition to Doctor Manuel González Guerrero’s project, two Starting Grant projects are already being carried out at CBGP under the direction of Drs. Mar Castellano and Luis Rubio.