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Uncovering the complexity of collagen

Debora Monego, PostDoc in the Molecular Biomechanics (MBM) Group at HITS, has been awarded the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Postdoctoral Fellowship (MSCA), one of the most prestigious awards for Postdocs in Europe, for her research work on the mechanochemical behavior of collagen, the main structural protein in the human body.


Debora Monego (left) and Frauke Gräter (Photo: HITS)

“I am very happy and honored to receive a MSCA fellowship, especially since it’s the first time this fellowship goes to a HITS scientist. It’s a significant achievement, particularly as a woman in STEM, where we’re still striving to overcome numerous challenges and biases,” says Debora Monego.


Debora is originally from Brazil and did her PhD at the University of Sydney, Australia. She joined HITS in early 2023 after a stay at the Columbia University in New York, USA. The MSCA fellowship will help continuing her research on collagen in a new project. In this project, collagen serves as a model to uncover the nuances of protein mechanochemistry and helps establishing design rules for creating materials with specific mechanical stability and response.


Potential for innovative material design

“With this project, my aim is to uncover the complexities of how collagen operates under the diverse forces it encounters within the human body”, Debora explains. “I am enthusiastic about the potential of my findings to lead to the creation of new, more effective healthcare materials.”


A central aspect of this research is to find out how evolutionary adaptations of collagen influence its response to forces, especially in contexts of aging and disease. Merging bioinformatics, computational biophysics, and materials science, the interdisciplinary approach in this project is set to reveal how evolution shapes protein defenses against mechanical strains.


Collagen: stable rubber band and radical sponge

“We had this idea of mechanoradicals in collagen, but we haven’t really looked into how, by evolution, collagen got prepared for it, until today”, says Frauke Gräter, head of the Molecular Biomechanics Group (MBM) and Debora’s supervisor.


“How does the 1000-residue long protein encode its functions as stable rubber band, well-crosslinked polymer, as well as radical sponge? That’s the new aspect Debora’s work will bring in. Key is Debora’s view from chemistry and materials science on the biological system.”


Debora adds: “I think my background offers a unique perspective for exploring how collagen behaves structurally and chemically within our bodies. Frauke’s experience and commitment to leveraging high-performance computing for biomechanics research was the reason I first got in touch with her a few years ago, laying the foundations for this particular project. Having her as a supervisor, especially as a woman in science, also helps me figure out my own path in the field.”


One of the most prestigious awards for PostDocs

With a success rate of 15.8 %, the MSCA fellowship is one of the most prestigious awards for PostDocs and the EU’s flagship for the mobility and training of researchers. While fostering excellent research and innovation as well as personal growth, the MSCA aims for knowledge exchange and public engagement, placing a strong focus on career progression. MSCA Postdoctoral Fellowships are open to excellent researchers of any nationality. More on the MSCA program here.


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