A Swedish forest in summer
A Swedish forest in summerPhoto: Sonali Ranade

Torgny Näsholm’s research on amino acids as nitrogen source for plants revolutionised the understanding of plant nutrition. His results led to the development of novel and environmentally friendly nitrogen bio stimulants which are now commercialized by the company Arevo - a development that was last week awarded with the 2023 University spin-off prize at Umeågalan.

Torgny Näsholm initiated his research on nitrogen nutrition while working at the Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) that is part of UPSC. He is now Professor in Tree Ecophysiology at the SLU Department of Forest Ecology and Management but still collaborates closely with the UPSC research groups as an associated group leader.

His ground-breaking discovery, published in Nature 1998, was that trees can take up amino acids directly and that this is the preferred nitrogen source in boreal forests rather than ammonium or nitrate. This discovery changed the understanding of plant nutrition and led to the development of new types of nitrogen bio stimulants based on the amino acid arginine.

These bio stimulants have not only a positive effect on plant growth and stress resistance - they also reduce the leakage of nitrogen into the ground water. This is helps to decrease the environmental impact of nitrogen fertilisation, a point that was highlighted in the motivation for the University spin-off prize that was handed over on Wednesday last week at Umeågalan.

Several patents based on Torgny Näsholm’s research were originally filed and granted to the UPSC spin-off company SweTree Technologies that specialized this development in the daughter company SweTree Nutrition. The inventions are now developed and commercialized by new investors in the company Arevo.

Umeågalan is arranged by Umeå Municipality and Umeå University together with Umeå University Holding, SLU Holding and Umeå’s business community. The idea behind is to stimulate new collaborations and to contribute to make Umeå an attractive place for doing business. Eleven awards in different categories were handed out this year during the event on March 23 to companies located in the Umeå region.

Read more information about Arevo’s products and the research behind in this news from Umeå University (in Swedish)

More information about Umeågalan (in Swedish)

More information about Torgny Näsholm and his research

Catherine Bellini standing in the front of the lecture room behind a speakersdesk with several rows of sitting participants before watching her
Catherine Bellini standing in the front of the lecture room behind a speakersdesk with several rows of sitting participants before watching herCatherine Bellini concluding the INUPRAG 2023 Symposium in Umeå (photo: Anne Honsel)

Last week, the third INUPRAG Symposium on Integrative Plant Biology took place at Hotel Mimer in Umeå. Researchers from the three partners of the INUPRAG cooperation - from the French INRAE, from UPSC and from the Spanish research centre CRAG - were meeting for the third time, presented their recent work, exchanged ideas and planted seeds for new research collaborations.

Enhancing networking and stimulating collaborative research projects – this is the goal of the INUPRAG cooperation. INUPRAG stands for INRAE, the French National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment, UPSC and CRAG, the Centre for Research in Agricultural Genomics, located in Barcelona, Spain. All three institutes are strong research environments in plant sciences and the symposium last week was the third trilateral meeting since the start of the cooperation in 2015.

“Originally, we planned the symposium in Umeå for 2020 but had to postpone it because of the Covid-19 pandemic. We were pleasantly surprised by the high interest”, says Catherine Bellini, professor at Umeå University and Senior Scientist at INRAE, who was the main organiser of the symposium. “We expected that some of the speakers we invited will not have time to come but everyone said yes from the beginning. In the end, we had a very dense programme and about 140 instead of the 100 participants initially expected.”

People mingling around several posters photographed from abovePoster session during the INUPRAG Symposium (photo: Anne Honsel)

Thirty-five high quality talks by group leaders and 36 posters mainly from PhD students and postdocs were presented during the two-and-a-half-day symposium. In addition to the multidisciplinary presentations two round table discussions were organised about the European Horizon Europe programme and ways to further enhance networking within the INUPRAG cooperation.

Promoting the training of young scientists and facilitating knowledge transfer

“One objective of the cooperation is to promote the training of young scientists through lab exchanges between the partners and by enabling them to develop their networks”, explains Catherine Bellini. “We had six joint postdoctoral projects ongoing in 2020. Most of the postdocs have already moved on and could thus not present their research during this year’s symposium but we still think this is a good concept.”

The other major goal of the cooperation is to facilitate the transfer of knowledge and tools that are developed on model species like Arabidopsis and Poplar to crops and trees through joint research projects. The organisers of the symposium kept the afternoon of the second day free to give the participants time to meet and discuss potential future collaborations and offered a tour of the UPSC facilities.A group of people photographed from the back how they watch the phenotyping facilty at UPSC where aspen trees are standing on a rotating bandVisit at the phenotyping facility at UPSC (photo: Anne Honsel)

“It is always useful to visit other institutes and see what type of analyses can be done when planning research collaborations”, states Catherine Bellini who guided a group around UPSC. “We also learn a lot by exchanging experiences on how different facilities are managed at different institutes. It was fun to show our French and Spanish colleagues around and we are glad that they found it interesting. We are now looking forward for the next INUPRAG meeting which will be in France in 2025.”

The first meeting of the INUPRAG cooperation took place in Nancy, France, in 2015 when the first official agreement was signed. It was followed by a second meeting in Barcelona in 2018. That year, six postdoctoral fellowships were granted by the Kempestiftelserna, and the six postdocs started their collaborative research projects by the end of 2018/beginning of 2019. Since its start, about 100 co-publications have been published within the frame of the INUPRAG cooperation.

More information about the INUPRAG Cooperation

For questions regarding the INUPRAG cooperation, please contact:

Catherine Bellini
Umeå Plant Science Centre
Department of Plant Physiology
Umeå University
& Senior Scientist at INRAE
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Portrait photo of Petra Marhava with green plants in the background
Portrait photo of Petra Marhava in front of green plantsPhoto: Peter Marhavy

Empowering female scientists to achieve gender equality – this is the purpose of the International Day for Women and Girls in Science which is celebrated tomorrow on the 11th of February. We have asked our most recent female group leader, Petra Marhava, about her career, how she balances work and family life and what she thinks is important to improve gender balance in science.

What made you become interested in science?

Petra Marhava: Science is all about asking questions and seeking answers; my curiosity about the unknown motivates my passion in science. My PhD with Prof. Friml in Belgium sparked my interest in plant cell biology, and when I continued as a postdoc with Prof. Hardtke in Switzerland, it confirmed that this is what I want to pursue in the future. Few things are more rewarding than working in a career that is both enjoyable and beneficial to others.

Do you remember a key moment that influenced your decision to become a scientist?

Petra Marhava: After completing my MSc in Molecular Biology, I began working as a cytogeneticist at the Department of Oncology Genetics at the National Cancer Institute in Slovak Republic, which was a good experience but more of a normal job, and I missed doing research. The opportunity to begin my PhD in Prof. Friml's lab was very appealing to me because it was a completely new field for me. This step was a key moment for me but also my long interest in science and the impact of my mentors were very important.

What has helped you to move on with your academic career?

Petra Marhava: It was definitely my mentors (Christian and Jiri) and the locations where I studied my PhD or conducted postdoctoral research. I started my PhD in Plant Systems Biology at VIB in Ghent, where I was surrounded by approximately 300 excellent plant researchers, finished my PhD at the Institute of Science and Technology in Austria, which provides scientific diversity, and continued a postdoc at University of Lausanne, one of the best places to undertake plant research in Switzerland. These were definitely the key factors that influenced my career. Last but not least, our department gave a trust in me and supported my applications to establish my own research group here at UPSC.

You are a mother of three kids and just start to set up your independent research group at UPSC. How does it work to balance work and family live?

Petra Marhava: Being a mother of three little children while establishing my own research career is challenging and demands many sacrifices. But I am fortunate to have an amazing husband, who helps and supports me much, making things simpler. Moreover, I have a great support from our department and fantastic colleagues around me.

What do you think can we do to inspire girls and young women in science and motivate them to start a career in science?

Petra Marhava: I don’t think that we need to motivate/inspire girls or young women to start a career in science. They are inspired! In my opinion, we should think about how to motivate them to stay in science. Childcare and dual career support are only few examples how we can support them.

Do you have any tips for young (female) researchers who want to start a career in science?

Petra Marhava: It's difficult for me to give advice, but one thing that has helped me in the past is to never give up (and I wanted many times 😊).

About Petra Marhava

Petra Marhava started her independent research group at UPSC in summer 2022 focussing on plant acclimation to heat and cold stress. After her master’s degree in Molecular Biology, Petra Marhava worked as cytogeneticist at the National Cancer Institute of Slovak Republic. She did her PhD in Jiří Friml’s group that moved from the VIB U-Ghent in Belgium to the Institute of Science and Technology Austria in Vienna and finished her PhD there in 2015. Then, she moved on to a postdoc in Christian Hardtke’s group at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland before she joined UPSC in 2020.

In 2022, Petra Marhava received one of the highly competitive ERC Starting Grants from the European Research Council (ERC) and was awarded with a prize for young researchers from Kungliga Skytteanska Samfundet. Petra Marhava was finalist of the 2020 New Phytologist Tansley Medal for excellence in plant science and received in November 2021 a starting grant from the Swedish Research Council.

More information about Petra Marhava’s research

More information about Petra Marhava’s ERC Starting Grant project "Hot-and-Cold"

The purpose of the International Day for Women and Girls in Science is to empower women and girls in science and strengthen their participation in science and technology communities. The day was established in 2005 by the United Nations General Assembly and implemented by UNESCO and UN-Women. According to UN-Women, 33.3 percent of researchers world-wide are women but only 12% are members of national science academies and they are still disadvantaged in their career.
Portrait photo of Martí Quevedo with a greyish background
Portrait photo of Martí Quevedo with a greyish backgroundMartí Quevedo will start his own postdoctoral project beginning of next year at CRAG in Barcelona (photo: Hans Karlsson)

Martí Quevedo, postdoc in Åsa Strand’s group, is granted a two-year postdoctoral fellowship from the AGenT postdoctoral programme at the Centre for Research in Agricultural Genomics in Barcelona (CRAG). This multidisciplinary and intersectoral programme is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie COFUND Programme and very competitive. Martí Quevedo will start his new, independently developed project on chromatin architecture beginning of next year.

What was motivating you to apply for this competitive fellowship?

"This fellowship really felt like stars aligning. This call offers funding for post-docs to pursue your own independent projects and aims to be a bridge towards starting your own group in the short future. All of this at CRAG in Barcelona, an excellent plant research institute near my hometown. In order to pursue a career in academia I needed to move to a new lab after 4 years at UPSC. So, I was extra motivated for this application."

How did you choose your future lab and with whom will you work?

"I first went through several PIs at CRAG that interested me and reached out to meet them online before the application. I found this call extremely helpful not only to select the group that interested me, but also for networking. Finally, I decided to join Elena Monte’s group. Besides sharing a similar background in chloroplast and light signalling, what really attracted me about her group is the range of plant model systems they are working with, ranging from the green algae Chlamydomonas to Arabidopsis and rice."

What do you plan to do in your project?

"Similarly as I did at UPSC, I will focus on establishing new methods to study how plants modulate their DNA. Continuing with my background in transcription regulation I will study how plants cope with stress at the nuclear level. In detail, I am interested in how the architecture of the chromatin changes and how the 3D conformation of the DNA could be engineered to improve crop traits in the long run."

Do you think your experiences from your time at UPSC will benefit your future project?

"Absolutely, coming from a PhD in Medical Genetics, my stay at UPSC has had an enormous impact on my career, starting with the drastic change to study plants. In Åsa Strand’s lab I had the freedom and funding to establish new lines of research related to my experience in epigenetics while assimilating their deep knowledge in plant physiology. Moreover, thanks to the rich post-doc community at UPSC, I met colleagues (and friends) that were experts in a vast range of topics and methodologies. Last but not least, the exceptional team at the UPSC bioinformatics facility significantly elevated my data analysis skills. All of this will benefit developing my future project."

Which were the biggest challenges writing your proposal?

"Mostly time! As most post-docs, that are also parents, know, it is especially hard to juggle around to find free time in your day-to-day schedule. Writing a proposal while keeping up at the lab and at home is always demanding. Another challenge was to come up with a new line of research that is innovative enough to get attention but still feasible to do in the context of the host group. For that, experience from previous (failed) applications helped a lot, as ideas become more mature when you chew on them for a while."

Do you have some tips for other postdocs or PhD students applying for similar competitive fellowships that are funded by the European Union?

"Every situation is different, and I am not an expert to be giving advice. In fact, I reached out to other colleagues and PIs for advice and even fished for past successful applications to learn from them. It is normal to fail most of the time. I tried many applications even if I believed I had little chance. That helped me to develop my writing skills and to have a backbone proposal ready to reformat for every new application."

Do you think you will miss UPSC and Umeå and if yes, what do you think you will miss most?

"After almost 5 years at UPSC and in Umeå I will miss a lot of things from here. From Umeå, I will be missing the tranquillity and easy-going life. Raising a child was less stressful here for sure! On that site, it may sound simple, but having such a gorgeous sport centre so close to work has made resisting those dark months of winter a bit easier. Also learning a bit of Swedish folk music and playing at UmeFolk was an amazing experience. From Northern Sweden, I will miss the outdoors. Skiing, fishing and hiking were marvellous in the boreal forest. Oh and of course Västerbotten cheese!"

"At the personal level, being a post-doc in a foreign country makes you in a constant state of loss, as friends you make from work are coming and going constantly. So, I have been missing friends from the first year I was here, and I will be missing friends when I am gone. I hope that many of the bonds I have made during this journey up North remain strong."

More information about AGenT
AGenT (Agricultural Genomics Transversal) is a postdoctoral programme at the Centre for Research in Agricultural Genomics (CRAG) that is part of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie COFUND Programme. Twenty two-year postdoctoral fellowships are offered in the AGenT programme in two competitive calls. The goal of the programme is to improve career prospects for plant and farm researchers in Europe by providing them excellent research conditions and training possibilities and the opportunity to extend their professional network within academia and the industrial sector. UPSC is one of the research partner institutions in the AGenT programme. CRAG and UPSC collaborate with each other since long time and form together with INRAe in France the trinational INUPRAG cooperation which aims on improving knowledge transfer and collaboration between the different partners.

For more information, please contact:

Martí Quevedo
Umeå Plant Science Centre
Department Plant Physiology
Umeå University
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Twitter: @marti_qc

Rishikesh Bhalerao, Sara Raggi with her certificate in the hand and Joanna Porankiewicz-Asplund standing beside each other in front of a Christmas tree
Rishikesh Bhalerao, Sara Raggi with her certificate in the hand and Joanna Porankiewicz-Asplund standing beside each other in front of a Christmas treeSara Raggi (middle) receives the UPSC Agrisera Prize 2022 from Rishikesh Bhalerao (left), vice-chairman of the UPSC Board, and Joanna Porankiewicz-Asplund from Agrisera (right) (photo: Stéphanie Robert)

Today, Sara Raggi, postdoc in Stéphanie Robert’s group, was awarded with the UPSC Agrisera Prize 2022. She is acknowledged for her significant scientific contributions to plant cell and developmental research and her commitment to create a positive and collaborative work environment at UPSC. The prize was handed over during the traditional UPSC Christmas lunch by Rishikesh Bhalerao, vice-chairmen of the UPSC Board, and Joanna Porankiewicz-Asplund from Agrisera.

Sara Raggi started to work as postdoc in Stéphanie Robert’s group at UPSC in 2016 after finishing her PhD. She was involved in several scientific projects and is co-author of several articles. One of her main projects was to develop an automated method to measure the angle of unbending Arabidopsis seedlings after germination. This method uses machine learning as basis for the image analysis and was done together with an engineering master student who Sara supervised. Two publications from this project are currently in preparation.

Besides her scientific achievements, Sara Raggi has been actively engaged in improving the work environment at UPSC. She was postdoc representative, member of the greenhouse introduction team and helped with outreach events. She took over responsibilities in different groups at UPSC, like for example the gardening group which set up boxes to grow vegetables in front of UPSC and the “Greener UPSC” group that aims on promoting sustainability at UPSC, and helped to organize social events.

The UPSC Board received this year eleven nomination letters for seven candidates. The selection of Sara was based on the letters nominating Sara Raggi which emphasized Sara Raggi’s teamwork skills, her scientific excellence and her contribution to making UPSC a great place to work. Every year anyone working at UPSC can nominate a colleague for the prize, a travel voucher sponsored by Agrisera. Based on the written nomination the members of the UPSC board voted to select the recipient of the prize.

“The prize gives us the opportunity to thank our personnel for their work and commitment. It is always very difficult to choose between the candidates as they all highly deserve of this prize,” says Rishikesh Bhalerao who announced the winner of the prize this year.

Göran Ericsson and Mikael Elofsson are cutting a red ribbon that is stretched in front of the entrance to UPSCs new growth facility
Göran Ericsson and Mikael Elofsson are cutting a red ribbon that is stretched in front of the entrance to UPSCs new growth facilityGöran Ericsson (left) and Mikael Elofsson (right) officially inaugurate the new growth facility at UPSC (photo: Anne Honsel)

Last Friday, Göran Ericsson, Dean of the Faculty of Forest Sciences from SLU, and Mikael Elofsson, Dean of the Faculty of Science and Technology from Umeå University, inaugurated the new growth facility at Umeå Plant Science Centre. This extension of the current facility was needed to meet the increasing demand for controlled plant growth conditions and is highly appreciated by the researchers.

Since its inception more than twenty years ago, Umeå Plant Science Centre (UPSC) has grown massively, hosting currently more than thirty research groups and about 200 people. The demand for controlled plant growth conditions increased constantly during this time and will likely grow further with additional group leaders set to join in 2023. The usage of the available growing space was continuously optimised but could not meet the demand anymore so that the UPSC board decided in 2019 to extend the current growth facility.

"The best solution was to reconstruct an entire floor"

“We considered different possibilities, but in the end, the best solution was to reconstruct an entire floor to make space for the new growth facility,” explains Johannes Hanson, coordinator of the rebuilding project. “When thinking on growth facilities you might expect a greenhouse, but we will only have growth cabinets in the new facility. They need less space than our current growth rooms so that we can use the available space more economically and we can also offer more versatile growth conditions that can be individually adjusted to the needs.”Growth cabinets are standing on the left and right side of a corridor and a group of people at the end of the corridor.Tour in the new Growth Facillity at UPSC (photo: Anne Honsel)

Space for more than forty growth cabinets

The new growth facility will have space for more than forty growth cabinets. Several were already available at UPSC. They have been now all moved to the new facility and additional cabinets are in the purchase process. Such cabinets allow to control very precisely temperature, carbon dioxide levels, light intensity and humidity - factors that are strongly affecting plant growth. An additional factor is light quality which has a strong effect on photosynthesis but also on many other processes in plants.

“Four of the new cabinets will allow researchers to investigate the impact of specific wavelengths of light on plant growth, a research topic of great interest to several research groups at UPSC. We had similar cabinets before, but they are getting old and need replacement”, says Rishikesh Bhalerao, manager of the UPSC Plant Growth Facility. “Thanks to Kempestiftelserna we can now purchase eleven new cabinets that can be used for growing Arabidopsis and small tree saplings.”View into a lab space with white boards and shelfs and working benchesLaboratory space in the new Growth Facility at UPSC (photo: Anne Honsel)

"Controlled plant growth conditions are very crucial for our research"

Researchers at UPSC are working mainly with model plants: the annual plant thale cress or Arabidopsis, poplar and aspen and spruce. The cabinets are located in a contained area which is the prerequisite for working with flowering transgenic plants. This area comprises also space for planting and lab work, a photo station and two stereomicroscopes so that the plants growing in the new facility can be examined in more detail.A working area with two stereomicroscopes straight ahead, a scanner and a computer on the right side and a centrifuge on the left sidePhoto station in the new Growth Facility (photo: Anne Honsel)

“We want to offer our researchers the best possible environment and controlled plant growth conditions are very crucial for our research,” says Stefan Jansson, head of the Department of Plant Physiology at Umeå University which is one of the two sister departments of UPSC. “We were lucky that we had room in the budget of our department to fund the reconstruction and it is relieving that we can now reduce some of the pressure, especially for growing Arabidopsis. The next step needed will be to get more and better space for growing trees, especially for poplar.”

Cabinet with open door and light and Arabidopsis plants on two shelfs insideArabidopsis plants inside a growth cabinet (photo: Anne Honsel)

For questions regarding the new growth facility, please contact:

Johannes Hanson
Umeå Plant Science Centre
Department of Plant Physiology
Umeå University
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Sonja Viljamaa in front of a bush covered slightly with snow
Sonja Viljamaa in front of a bush covered slightly with snowPhD student Sonja Viljamaa (photo: Sonali Ranade)

Trees are key players for carbon removal from the atmosphere. But what is happening with the carbon once it enters the trees? Sonja Viljamaa, PhD student in Totte Niittylä’s group at UPSC and SLU, headed off to track carbon in aspen trees, focusing especially on carbon allocation to wood formation. Together with bioinformaticians, she identified new gene regulatory networks in developing wood and showed that aspen trees save carbon passively under optimal conditions.

What motivated you to do your PhD in Totte Niittylä’s group at UPSC?

Sonja Viljamaa: I wanted to continue studying trees. During my master’s at the University of Oulu I had been working on conifers, more specifically on cryopreservation of a spruce cell culture that produced extracellular lignin. So, I had already a connection to research on trees as well as cell wall and wood development. I had visited UPSC in 2013 for a short internship in Stefan Jansson’s group and had gotten a taste on how it is to work with aspen, and how the institute was as a working place.

When I saw the position in Totte Niittylä’s group combining research on wood development in aspen and Arabidopsis, a classical model species which I had actually never worked with before, I was very interested. Moving from Finland to Sweden sounded both familiar and exotic at the same time, and I thought it was also an advantage that my supervisor is Finnish like me - even though he unexpectedly did not know quite some Finnish research and plant biology vocabulary as he has studied mainly in English.

You analysed in your thesis how carbon that is assimilated during photosynthesis is allocated in aspen trees during growth. Why is it important to know this?

Sonja Viljamaa: All main processes in plants are depending on carbon which is used to deliver energy to the cells and is the main component of cell walls and wood. Many studies related to carbon allocation in plants are and have been performed on Arabidopsis, but it is difficult to transfer this knowledge to trees. Arabidopsis is a small annual plant and most of its carbon-storing parts like the stem and the leaves are photosynthetically active and green.

In trees, a major part of the assimilated carbon ends up in the wood which is mostly dead and not photosynthetically active. Trees are also much larger, long-lived and modular, meaning that for example one branch can be self-sufficient in carbon. All this adds additional complexity which is difficult to study in Arabidopsis and makes studies on trees, especially on carbon allocation to wood, necessary. Knowing more about the mechanisms behind and how they are regulated will hopefully have a practical use in tree breeding in the future.

What do you consider as the major outcome from your studies?

Sonja Viljamaa: Our results fill knowledge gaps related to carbon allocation in trees, and the data that we generated can serve as starting point for many new studies benefiting the scientific community in general. In one of the projects, we produced novel gene network information for developing wood of aspen and added this information to a publicly available database.

In another project, we characterised the first starch-less mutant in trees and showed that starch seemed to be stored passively in aspen trees. This contrasts with previous findings in Arabidopsis, in which carbon storage as starch has been described as an active process.

How can information about gene networks regulating wood development help to study carbon allocation?

Sonja Viljamaa: As wood is a major storage for carbon in trees, our goal was to identify gene networks that are involved in the process of wood formation. For this, we planned a large study to identify possible target genes of 660 transcription factor proteins that bind to the DNA and regulate the expression of genes. Quite many of the transcription factors included in the study were not well described yet. We wanted to find both new target genes of known transcription factors as well as completely new interactions between less known transcription factors and genes. For this, we used two different analysis methods and developed a bioinformatics analysis pipeline with the help of bioinformaticians.

This was the first aspen study with these techniques in this scale and as a result we produced a vast amount of data that is now integrated in the publicly available PopGenIE database. Any researcher interested in studying wood development can now access the data and use it for their research.

Unfortunately, we could not dive deeper into biological questions ourselves and study some of the transcription factors and their identified targets in the context of carbon allocation to wood development. There was just no time for this in the end, but I am happy for the people who will continue working on this project after me and who can start with this nice resource.

What was the most unexpected result you got during your PhD?

Sonja Viljamaa: I was really astonished and surprised to see that the starch-less aspen mutant trees generated in one of the projects looked so similar to the non-mutant trees. The only visible difference compared to the control plants was that the leaves were slightly more hanging down so that canopy area was slightly smaller, but otherwise they looked normal.

As there is such a complex machinery to produce starch and break it down, I was expecting that starch would be essential for tree growth and that the starch-less mutant trees would be sicker, but at least in our greenhouse experiments the young trees were growing without problems.

What was the biggest challenge you faced during your PhD?

Sonja Viljamaa: I have not worked a lot with bioinformatics before and there was quite a learning curve in getting started with that. It was interesting to learn to speak “the computer language” and to work in the command line, but this took some time and effort.

There were also some hiccups in finalising the pipeline for the bioinformatics analysis which took longer than I expected. Thanks to the help from the UPSC bioinformatics platform and from Nathaniel Street’s group, especially from Teitur Ahlgren Kalman, we managed to get everything running.

Additionally, the uncertainty caused by the global pandemic didn’t help with the practical experiments and it extended the delivery times for some of the reagents. Luckily, we got everything to work out in the end.

What are you planning to do now?

I will stay at UPSC until December and try to publish the results of at least one of my manuscripts. I also plan to finish the work on some samples I have collected but that I did not have the time yet to analyse. Then, I will assist a PhD student from Nathaniel Street’s group who is planning to use the same analysis methods as I used. After that I will see.

It would be nice if I could continue doing research, preferably with a focus on trees, or maybe even to go back to plant tissue culture work. I would really like to stay somewhere in the North with its snow and the changing seasons, which would of course be a bit of a limitation when looking for positions. It will be interesting to see where life leads me!

About the public defence:

Sonja Viljamaa, Umeå Plant Science Centre, Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, defended her PhD thesis on Monday, 21st of November 2022. Faculty opponent was Andrew D. Friend, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK. The thesis was supervised by Totte Niittylä.

Title of the thesis: Carbon allocation in aspen trees

Link to the thesis: https://pub.epsilon.slu.se/29010/

News about Sonja Viljamaa’s research on carbon storage in aspen trees

Link to PopGenIE - The Populus Genome Integrative Explorer - the database where Sonja Viljamaa’s data is included

For more information, please contact:

Sonja Viljamaa
Umeå Plant Science Centre
Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Building of the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry in Stockholm
Building of the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry in StockholmThe Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry in Stockholm (Photo: Johan Fredriksson published under CC BY-SA 3.0 license)

Last week on November 10, the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry has elected 23 new fellows. Among them are Stefan Jansson and Olivier Keech, both group leaders at UPSC and Umeå University, and Isabella Hallberg Sramek, who is PhD student in Annika Nordin’s group at SLU. Both Stefan Jansson and Olivier Keech will join the General Section of the academy while Isabella Hallberg Sramek will be part of the Forestry Section.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry is an independent organisation that works with questions regarding agriculture, horticulture, food, forest and forest products, fishing and aquaculture, the environment and natural resources. Its mission is to promote these fields and also activities associated with them through support from science and practical experience and to the benefit of society. They emphasise the importance of green industries and aim to highlight all aspects related to it.

Academy fellows are chosen because of their outstanding knowledge and experience in their respective field of work bringing in different professional backgrounds and competences. The General Section, that Stefan Jansson and Olivier Keech will join, deals with cross cutting questions of all fields the academy is working with. The forestry section, to which Isabella Hallberg Sramek is elected, focusses on questions related to management and usage of forests as natural resource. Since before, Stefan Jansson is fellow of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences.

More information:

Links to the announcements of the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry (in Swedish):
(General Section)
https://www.ksla.se/2022/11/10/nya-ledamoter-i-kslas-skogsavdelning/ (Forestry Section)

Information about the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry

Eight thale cress seedlings with adventitious and primary roots in front of a black background
Eight thale cress seedlings with adventitious and primary roots in front of black backgroundThale cress seedlings with adventitous (indicated by the arrow) and primary roots (below the dotted line)

Plants can regenerate new roots on stem cuttings, a characteristic that is widely used in agriculture and forestry to propagate plants. What are the underlying molecular processes controlling the formation of such adventitious roots? Catherine Bellini, group leader at UPSC and professor at Umeå University, will investigate this question in her new project that got this week granted by the Swedish Research Council. Her focus will be on how light together with plant hormones interact to regulate gene expression during the initiation of adventitious roots.

Understanding which factors control the initiation of adventitious roots is one of Catherine Bellini’s main research areas. She and her group have looked deep into the molecular regulation of this process and added a lot of details to the complex regulation puzzle. They identified several genes as well as transcription factors, proteins that activate genes, that are regulating the formation of adventitious roots and figured out which and how different plant hormones cooperate with each other in this process.

Recently, Catherine Bellini’s group confirmed that the transcription factors regulating adventitious root development in thale cress perform a similar role in poplar and probably in Norway spruce. While exploring how light regulates gene activity during adventitious root formation, they could show that red light promotes adventitious root initiation in Norway spruce by inhibiting stress induced plant hormones.

“The results from the tree model species reassured us that we are on the right track with our basic research in thale cress,” says Catherine Bellini. “Thanks to the funding from the Swedish Research Council, we can now continue to research in this direction and investigate the role of the identified candidate genes further. Our results will hopefully help in the future to improve vegetative propagation in horticulture and forest species.”

Focussing on thale cress, Catherine and her group do not only want to understand better how gene activity is regulated during adventitious root formation. They also plan to follow up on their previous findings that certain subunits of the multi-protein complex COP9 signalosome play a significant role in this process. This complex exists not only in plants but also in many other organisms like fungi and human and controls which proteins are labelled for degradation. The molecular details of this regulation on the protein level are not well understood yet and that is what Catherine Bellini wants to investigate further.

Link to the announcement from the Swedish Research Council

More information:

Catherine Bellini
Umeå Plant Science Centre
Department of Plant Physiology
Umeå University
Phone: +46 (0)90 786 9624
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Portrait photo of Stéphane Verger (left), Stéphanie Robert (middle) and Peter Marhavý (right) in front of a wooden red wall
Portrait photo of Stéphane Verger (left), Stéphanie Robert (middle) and Peter Marhavý (right) standing in fron of a wooden red wallStéphanie Robert (middle) and her co-applicants from UPSC Stéphane Verger (left) and Peter Marhavý (right) (photo: Sara Raggi)

Professor Stéphanie Robert from UPSC and SLU will lead a research project awarded over SEK 32 million by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation. The aim is to explore how plant cells get their "identity", how different types of cells emerge in the right place and at the right time during plant development. Although carefully studied in animals, this mechanism is still poorly understood in plants.

Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation has awarded a total of SEK 700 million to 23 research projects, in medicine, natural science and technology, that are judged to have such a high scientific potential that they have the possibility of leading to future scientific breakthroughs.

One of the awarded projects has the title Decoding cell fate with positional information and is awarded SEK 32,200,000 over five years. The principal investigator is Professor Stéphanie Robert, Professor of Plant Physiology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU). Co-researchers are her colleagues Peter Marhavý and Stéphane Verger from the Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology, which is part of Umeå Plant Science Centre, and also Eleni Stavrinidou from Linköping University and Maria Tenje from Uppsala University.

How do different cell types emerge at the right time and place in plants?

Animals and plants grow and develop as a result of controlled cellular processes such as division, elongation, and differentiation, where cell differentiation is defined as the acquisition of identity for a specific cell. Although carefully studied in animals, this mechanism is still poorly understood in plants. While a number of genes are known to control the acquisition of identity in plants, we still do not know how these genes are activated.

Positional information is regarded to be a crucial component of this regulatory process: we know that cell identity or cell fate acquisition is dependent on a cell's relative position within the complex organism. However, it remains unknown which signals govern cell destiny determination and how.

The goal of the project that Stéphanie Robert will lead is to contribute to the basic understanding of cell identity determination processes by working on root hair cells in the outer cell layer of the root. Root hairs are epidermal outgrowths present along the root and help the plant to absorb nutrients and water. The researchers will identify the components of positional information and unravel how they transform cell identity in epidermal root hair and non-hair cells.

“Non-hair cells alternate with hair cells along the root and their position in relation to the cell layer below is very predictable, giving us the fantastic opportunity to study cell identity determination”, says Stéphanie Robert. “Better knowledge about these particular cells is very important, and can in the long run help us develop more tolerant crops and trees that can cope with climate change”.

The hypothesis of the project is that positional information not only consists of chemical signals, but also of physical signals such as geometric, mechanical and electrical contacts between cells. To investigate this, the researchers will follow the development of identity when cells are exposed to different stimuli. By systematically changing various physical parameters in root tissue samples from the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana, they will be able to rule out or confirm that these control the cells' properties and development, both individually and in unison.

In addition, the researchers plan to develop for the first time an artificial model of an Arabidopsis thaliana root – a “plant-on-chip” – inspired by a new method where models of human organs are assembled and studied on a microchip.

“Such a method, where plant cells are positioned in specific structures on a surface using advanced micro-manufacturing methods and bioprinting, will revolutionise plant biology. It will enable us to combine genetically modified cells and thereby elucidate how physical stimuli are translated into molecular changes and how these together control the development of different cell types”, says Stéphanie Robert.

Behind this project is an interdisciplinary research group with experts in plant biology, genetics, microfluidics and electronics, who, through their location at three universities in Sweden, have access to the state-of-the-art facilities and instruments that are required to achieve the objective.

“Our project will give us basic knowledge about how cells, both in plants and in other organisms, obtain their identity. This is one of the most central questions in developmental biology that has not yet been answered”, summarises Stéphanie Robert.

Link to press release from KAW
Link to the Swedish news on the SLU homepage

For questions regarding the project, please contact:

Stephanie Robert
Professor at the Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Umeå
Telephone: +46907868609, +46767674595
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Text: David Stephansson