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Scientific categories: Comparative Biology and Cytology (BIO/06), Genetics (BIO/18), Microbiology (BIO/19)

Our research activities aim to investigate the molecular, cellular and developmental diversity of organisms at different levels of evolutionary complexity: microorganisms, plants, animals and humans. The relationships among individuals and/or populations, and among them and the environment, are described by means of modern genomic techniques and cellular/morphometric tools. This multidisciplinary approach allows for a much needed and exhaustive description of natural biodiversity, potentially placing the Bio-Molecular Diversity & Evolutionary Biology group in the forefront of both basic and applied research.

Specific Research Objectives

Applied and environmental microbiology (E. Federici, S. Covino)

Implementation of cultural and molecular-based approaches to investigate bacterial diversity and functions in the environment (e.g., soil, water, particulate matter, host), in biotechnological processes (e.g., bioremediation and disinfection) and in human health (e.g., Legionella infections).

Conservation genetics and molecular ecology (L. Lucentini)

Mitochondrial and nuclear phylogenetic, phylogeography and DNA variations patterns evaluations to clarify evolution, dispersal patterns and taxonomic relationships of wild populations and domesticated stocks with theoretical and applied scopes, as pursue forensic and conservation genetics purposes. Application of integrative taxonomy to wild and domesticated stocks.

Cellular and molecular biology vs environment (I. Di Rosa, A. Fagotti)

Biological responses of sentinel organisms to environmental stressors, at different level of biological organization (sub-organismal, individual and population). Measurement of biomarkers under natural and controlled conditions.

Unit: Population genetics and molecular evolution (H. Lancioni)

Genetic analyses of mitochondrial and nuclear DNA sequence variation with the aim of better defining origins, evolution and dispersal patterns of human and livestock populations. Definition of the role played by the human and animal genome variation in association studies and in forensic surveys.

Research area: The research activity is focused on the synthesis, characterization and optimization of innovative compounds with potential pharmaceutical interest. Wet-lab and in silico approaches are combined to reach our goals. Concerning the wet-lab experimental work, this includes the synthesis, purification, and characterization of organic compounds of pharmaceutical interest but also the study of their metabolic stability and the safety risk assessment through metabolomics, lipidomics and high-content imaging analyses. Concerning the in silico approaches, they range from target identification, high-throughput virtual screening, drug repurposing, hit-to-lead optimization, physical-chemical and ADMET properties prediction, QSAR, artificial intelligence.

Main Topics

- Target identification. Innovative methods for target identification are available, based on protein-protein comparison and docking approaches.

- Hit discovery and hit-to-lead optimization. From virtual screening campaigns (ligand-based, structure-based, pharmacophore-based) to the in silico evaluation of physico-chemical and ADMET properties for optimization purposes.

- Design and synthesis of innovative organic compounds of pharmaceutical interest. A fully equipped laboratory of organic synthesis is available. Current research efforts are focused on the synthesis of small drug-like compounds and PROteolysis TArgeting Chimeras (PROTACs) small molecules, which are designed to induce target protein degradation .

- Metabolic stability, soft spot prediction and metabolites identification. In silico and wet-lab approaches for evaluating the effect of metabolism on organic compounds prior or after synthesis. Cheminformatics approaches are also used to automatically identify the formed metabolites by HRLC-MS/MS analysis. Metabolism can be studied in several biological matrices (e.g. purified enzymes, S9 fraction, human liver microsomes, human and rat hepatocytes, cells)

- Safety risk assessment by omics approaches. Study of the effect of an organic compound on the metabolomics and lipidomics profiles, as an early evaluation of potential toxicity. HRLC-MS/MS combined to novel in silico tools for big data handling are used to rapidly get information from untargeted approaches.

- High content imaging. The new Operetta CLS equipped with Harmony software completes the safety and mechanistic studies allowing to reveal fine sub-cellular details.

Research area: theory and computational modelling in various fields including:

Fundamental processes and chemical mechanisms of dye-sensitized and organic solar cells. Spectroscopy, Photochemistry and non linear optical properties of complex systems and nanoscale devices, Relativistic quantum chemistry and 4-component DFT, Gold chemistry and gold-based homogeneous catalysis, Reaction mechanisms in organic, Bio-inorganic and organometallic chemistry, Molecular single and multiple ionization and electronic decay processes. Green’s function theory, Intermolecular interactions and weak charge transfer phenomena, Nanochemistry: carbon nanotubes and graphene nanoribbons, Atmospheric chemistry, Arts heritage chemistry and spectroscopy, Silicon chemistry in microelectronics, High-performance computing.

Research area:

1) A multidisciplinary approach to gain sustainable improvement of rice productivity through the co-cultivation with the fern Azolla and its cyanobacterial symbiont

Achieving a steady increase in cereal crop yield has become a top research priority. The increment of world population, expected to reach 10 billion by 2050, coupled to food shortage, poses in fact a serious threat to social and political stability. Globally, food crop yields are already dangerously stagnating, indicating that further yield gains through conventional breeding and increased use of soil fertilizers are strategies that are not more pursuable. Further to this, enhanced plant productivity has to be achieved while preventing extensive land-use increase, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and environmental pollution. Therefore, urgent alternative and sustainable strategies to keep yield improvement in pace with world-wide population growth is mandatory. This multidisciplinary research proposal focuses on sustainable yield increase in rice grain production through the co-cultivation with Azolla-Anabaena. Rice (Oryza sativa) is both a model grass species and the world’s second-most produced staple cereal crop. Azolla is an aquatic pteridophyte that has coevolved with Anabaena azollae, a symbiotic nitrogen fixing cyanobacteria inhabiting the fern leaflets. In Asia Azolla co-cultivation with rice has been used for many centuries as an organic nitrogen fertilizer in wetland rice cultivation whereas in Europe its use is limited. The benefits of Azolla as a bio-fertilizer are well documented through decades of agronomic studies aimed at improving nitrogen use efficiency in rice. Beyond that, in virtue of their capacity to emit volatile organic compounds (BVOCs) and other signaling molecules (i.e hormones), the Azolla-Anabaena symbionts might positively interfere with rice plant development and resilience, thereby representing a potential natural resource to grow rice sustainably. Unfortunately, the nature of molecular interactions and the effects of the BVOCs emitted from Azolla-Anabaena on rice plants still remain unknown and unexplored.

The research project uses a multidisciplinary approach involving, physiological, molecular and genetic research to investigate the role of BVOCs emitted from Azolla-Anabaena in rice plant development, grain productivity and tolerance to environmental stresses. In particular, this project will first investigate in vivo the emission of BVOCs by Azolla-Anabaena both qualitatively and quantitatively. Then, the effects of the co-cultivation with Azolla-Anabaena on rice plant development (aerenchyma formation) will be investigated. To gain insight on how exogenous BVOCs exert beneficial effects on rice, the rice regulatory network controlling responses to BVOCs will be studied. Regulatory genes will be identified by transcriptome analysis using a next generation sequencing approach. Mutants for candidate genes will be obtained through a CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing approach or by overexpression analysis and functionally characterized upon application of specific exogenous BVOCs or co-cultivation with Azolla-Anabaena. The know-how generated in this project will create important opportunities for (molecular) breeding programs focused on rice germplasm that will fully exploit the beneficial effects of Azolla-Anabaena co-cultivation. In turn, this project will provide fundamental evidence on the interplay between crop plants and BVOCs emitted by other organisms being of pivotal importance for breeding and management of other crops. Importantly, this project is a beautiful showcase to demonstrate the valuable solutions for sustainable agriculture. On this concern, the achieved results will be disseminated to breeders, farmers and consumers.

This project is funded by the grant PRIN 2017 2017N5LBZK_004



2. Airborne pollen of olive meets carries and suffers air pollution

The linkage between pollen allergy and air pollutants was first reported at the end of the '80s but international research still talks about it today (Smiljanic et al., 2019). Allergic diseases, caused by pollen as well as by air pollution, are increasing and needs the definition of correct preventive measures. A crucial aspect is the lack of knowledge regarding the role and potential synergies of both pollen and air pollutants. The research attended to analyse the effect of air pollutants on the allergenic pollen of olive, particularly interesting for the widespread of this cultivation and especially for the most recent introduction of the olive in urban contexts as an ornamental tree. The study will be conducted in Umbria (Central Italy) during the 2019 pollen season. Three sites continuously monitored by Regional Agency of Environmental Protection (ARPA) and characterized by different quality pollution were chosen; i. Perugia, urban pollution from vehicular traffic; ii. Terni, emissions from the steel industry, iii. Monte Martano, regional background (EMEP site), as control.  

Research area

Unit: Inorganic and inorgano-organic solids with layered and framework structure: synthesis, characterization and application in catalysys, photochemistry and polymer nanocomposites (Coordinator Prof. Mario Casciola)

Design, synthesis and structural characterization of layered and framework inorganic and inorgano-organic solids including metal phosphonates and modified hydrotalcites.
Development of heterogeneous catalysts, based on synthetic hydrotalcites, for process of interest in the field of renewable energy exploitation.
Synthesis of zirconium phosphate and hydrotalcite nanoparticles to be used as fillers of polymer nanocomposites. Studies on exfoliation and aspect ratio of the nanoparticles.
Development of nanocomposites with enhanced thermal, mechanical and barrier properties based on biodegradable polymers filled with layered zirconium phosphate, phosphonates and hydrotalcites.
Studies on proton transport, hydration, mechanical properties and thermal stability of nanocomposite membranes made of perfluorinated sulfonated polymers and zirconium phosphate and phosphonates for application as polymer electrolytes in fuel cells.
Development of organic-inorganic hybrids made of zirconium phosphates and hydrotalcites intercalated with dyes and species with biological activity.
The laboratory is equipped with techniques for materials characterization including X-ray diffraction, thermal analysis (TGA, DTA, DSC), surface area determination, conductivity measurements by the impedance technique and stress-strain mechanical tests under controlled environment conditions.

Spin-off activity

Since 2008 the research group has been hosting a University spin-off, named Prolabin&Tefarm, led by prof. Umberto Costantino. The spin-off activity deals with development , production and commercialization of nanostructured inorganic-organic lamellar materials usable as polymer additives, heterogeneous catalysts and active ingredients for health care and cosmetics. The investigated materials belong mainly to the class of hydrotalcites, known also as Layered Double Hydroxides or anionic clays, and zirconium phosphates and phosphonates.

Unit: Molecular Catalysts for Olefin Polymerization and Water Oxidation (Coordinator Prof. Alceo Macchioni)

The activity of our research group mainly focuses on synthesizing, investigating and testing in catalysis of two classes of compounds: i) metallocene and post-metallocene complexes for olefin polymerization and ii) robust coordination complexes for water oxidation to molecular oxygen. As far as point i) is concerned, our main aim is to rationalize the effects of ion pairing and, in general, of co-catalyst/catalysts interactions on the performances of catalysts. Investigation of the intermolecular structure of aggregates in solution is carried out taking advantages of the NMR methodologies developed during the last years. Coming to point ii), water oxidation is an essential process for constructing an artificial photosynthetic apparatus aimed at the splitting of H2O into H2 and O2, whose realization would contribute to solve the energetic problem in a green and sustainable way [5]. We recently entered in such a fascinating research area by synthesizing new iridium(III) catalysts that showed remarkable catalytic activity.

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