David Castro standing in front of one of his field sites in winter PhD student David Castro at one of his field sites close to Sollefteå.

How do soil properties and microorganisms in the soil influence seedling growth? David Castro, PhD student in Vaughan Hurry’s group at UPSC and SLU showed in his PhD thesis that understanding this complex relationship between the three partners can help to optimize biodiversity-friendly forest management and to get a better picture about the ecology of endemic species. David Castro will defend his PhD thesis at the Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology, SLU, on the 24th of May.

During your PhD, you were funded by a scholarship that you got from Chile. That is very unusual for a PhD student in Sweden. What motivated you to apply for that scholarship and come to Umeå to do your PhD in Vaughan Hurry’s group at UPSC?

In 2015, me and my wife came to Umeå together with Cristian Ibáñez to work for a month with Maria Eriksson. We both fell in love with Umeå and the facilities at UPSC are amazing. It was also the time when I was preparing the papers to apply for the fellowship in Chile. I read about Vaughan Hurry’s research on suboptimal environments which was close to what I was working on during my Master thesis. I met with Vaughan, and he agreed on supporting my application for the fellowship which I luckily also received. It took then still one and a half years and many nerves until all papers were ready that I could finally come and start my PhD in Vaughan Hurry’s group. I am really happy that it all worked out and that I now can defend my thesis.

The title of your thesis starts with the question “Who comes first?” and mentions later the plant-microbiome-soil continuum. Can you answer the question now and why do you call it “continuum”?

“Who comes first” is rather a rhetorical question. The goal of my thesis was to understand the links between the plant, the microorganisms in the soil and the soil itself. We assessed plant growth and soil characteristics and used advanced sequencing techniques and bioinformatics methods to analyse how the plant and the microorganism, especially fungi, react to their environment. All three components are important and feedback each other. By allocating carbon to attract beneficial microbial partners, the plant’s roots modify locally the fungal and bacteria composition and also soil characteristics like for example soil particle aggregation, pH value and carbon content. Fungi and bacteria also allocate and move nutrients. Then there are also the physical and chemical characteristics of the soil which change during the year depending for example on the water content which is affecting the nutrient availability. That is why we cannot say who comes first. Every of the three partners influences continuously the other partners in a very complex manner and form together a kind of unit or “continuum”.

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

One part of my thesis was on Prosopis species that are partly endemic in Chile but very invasive in other parts of the world and therefore of ecological interest. In Chile, Prosopis is growing partly on soil with very particular characteristics like for example in the Atacama Desert. Our experiments showed that when Prosopis seedlings manage to recruit beneficial fungal partners, they grow well in various kinds of soils except of in soil from the Atacama Desert which is very salty. This counts even for seedlings of Prosopis tamarugo which is growing very isolated in the Atacama Desert. The other parts of my thesis focussed on Scots pine and Norway spruce which are of economic importance here in Sweden. We could show that small amounts of nitrogen fertilization improve plant growth but only very minorly affects soil ecology and the fungal composition. Strong nitrogen fertilization has a positive effect on plant growth but strongly impairs the microbiota and also the soil ecology which can have a major impact on forest biodiversity.

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

We were expecting that Prosopis tamarugo which is growing in the Atacama Desert to be very stress tolerant but that was not the case. Actually, it showed to be a kind of weak seedling which had problems to recruit fungal partners during our experiments. Instead, the seedlings recruited many bacterial partners and we think that this was to partially compensate for the lack of fungi. They survived significantly less in its native soil that we used for our experiments. This was surprising because they have the potential to grow in this soil. Another species that we worked with, Prosopis chilensis, managed to recruit fungi even in soil from the beach but not Prosopis tamarugo which is growing in the most toxic soil in the desert. Our hypothesis is that the individuals, that are growing in the Atacama Desert, established themselves there when it was not as arid as it is now - probably about 100 years ago. The trees or bushes form a taproot which goes very deep into the soil and can reach the ground water. Once this root is established, they can survive also in such an extreme climate like in the Atacama Desert but for a seedling this environment is too harsh.

What was the biggest challenge you faced during your PhD?

Beside suddenly start working in English, it was very hard to learn bioinformatics. I knew a few things from before, but the work here was a different level. I got a lot of help from the people from the Bioinformatics facility at UPSC and from my colleagues. It took time and I followed many courses but now I feel proficient and confident to do bioinformatic analyses and add these skills to my CV.

What are you planning to do now?

I do like to live in Umeå and I would like to stay here even though the winter can be tough. I would also like to keep working with soil ecology and maybe include more the bacterial perspective as we focussed more on the fungal site during my PhD. There is not much done on bacterial soil ecology in the forestry context and I would like to work more on that. I would also like to reanalyse some of the data that we got focussing more on bacteria to see if we can get out more information that we have not seen yet. That is why I am currently looking for a postdoc.

One Prosopis chilensis and one P. tamarugo seedling standing next to each other Prosopis seedlings that David Castro and his colleagues used in their experiments.

About the public defence:

David Castro, Umeå Plant Science Centre, Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, will defend his PhD thesis on Tuesday, 24th of May 2022. Faculty opponent will be Barbara Hawkins, Centre for Forest Biology, University of Victoria, Canada. The thesis was supervised by Vaughan Hurry. The dissertation will be live broadcasted via Zoom.

Title of the thesis: Who comes first? Implications of the plant-microbiome-soil continuum feedback on plant performance

Link to the thesis: https://pub.epsilon.slu.se/27682/

For more information, please contact:

David Castro
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.
Twitter: DavidCastroMor6

Portrait photo of Pushan Bag sitting on a swing in front of a lake
Portrait of Pushan Bag sitting on a swing in front of a lakePhD student Pushan Bag at Nydalasjön in Umeå (Photo: Jenna Lihavainen)

What allows conifer trees to stay green during winter when temperatures are low but solar radiation is high? Pushan Bag, PhD student in Stefan Jansson’s group at Umeå Plant Science Centre, showed that conifers have evolved special mechanisms that prevent damage to their photosynthetic machinery. He will defend his PhD thesis at the Department of Plant Physiology, Umeå University, on the 20th of May.

What led you come to Umeå and start your PhD on winter acclimation of conifer trees in Stefan Jansson’s group at UPSC?

Pushan Bag: I was working on photosynthetic acclimation of algae in my master’s at the University of Hyderabad in India. We were investigating the effect of salt stress on photosynthesis by using different salts and growing algae under controlled conditions. For my PhD, I did not want to work with “artificial” controlled conditions but instead I wanted to understand natural adaptations under “real” conditions. At that time, Stefan had a PhD position focussing on conifer trees growing in boreal forests. These forests are one of the harshest environments for plants and that was interesting me. So, I applied and came here in 2017.

How did you acclimatise to the Nordic winter?

Pushan Bag: Well, I arrived here on the 17th of February 2017, and February is the coldest time of the year in Umeå. On the very next day after I arrived, I had to collect samples from the forest behind the SLU building. It was fun! To be honest, I love the Nordic winter and the snow, probably because I am from Kolkata and we do not see winter temperature dropping below 5°C. Here in Umeå, I can do some winter sports, which I could not do back in Kolkata.

You worked with Norway spruce and Scots pine and followed the changes that happen in their needles throughout the year, but you set a special focus on spring. What is so special with this season?

Pushan Bag: Spring in the Nordic climate is very different than spring in any other parts of the world. Air temperatures remain well below zero – we measured even -25 °C in February and March 2018 -, while the sun shines very bright. This makes acclimation extremely tough. Sun light drives photosynthetic reactions, but freezing temperatures make it difficult to conduct those photosynthetic reactions. Another problem the plants face is that reactive oxygen species are generated under such high solar radiation and they can damage the photosynthetic machinery.

What is the major outcome from your studies? Can you explain why conifer needles can stay green throughout the year?

Pushan Bag: We discovered that conifers possess a kind of “spill-over” mechanism to protect their photosystems from energy overload. These are the functional units where photosynthesis takes place. The structure of the inner membranes in the chloroplast is changed during winter so that the two photosystems are in physical contact with each other. This is a kind of short cut that allows direct energy transfer from photosystem II to I which is normally not possible. As far as I know, this “spill-over” mechanism was not reported before for any other vascular plant. Conifers are pretty unique in this sense!

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

Pushan Bag: We found another mechanism that conifer needles have developed to protect their needles from damage by reactive oxygen species. These results are not published yet but they were really unexpected. We hope the paper will be accepted soon.

What was the biggest challenge you faced during your PhD?

Pushan Bag: I think the biggest challenge for me was to learn that in science multiple possibilities can be correct at the same time. Plant species are very different from each other. They have evolved different regulatory ways and they can respond to the same stimuli in different ways. We often tend to generalise mechanisms and functions based on results from one model plant. However, like in our case, it can help to look on different contrasting possibilities to understand a natural phenomenon and maybe discover some new mechanisms.

You recently received a long-term postdoctoral fellowship from the International Human Frontier Science Program Organization and will start working with Professor Barry Bruce at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. What do you think will you miss most from UPSC and Umeå?

Pushan Bag: Everything!!! I will most certainly miss my friends here in Umeå and also the working culture at UPSC, but I will take all my memories with me and I am looking forward to my new project.

About the public defence:

Pushan Bag, Umeå Plant Science Centre, Department of Plant Physiology, Umeå University, will defend his PhD thesis on Friday, 20th of May 2022. Faculty opponent will be Francis Andre Wollman from the Institute of Physico-Chemical Biology (IBPC), Laboratory of Membrane and Molecular Physiology of Chloroplast at Sorbonne Université in Paris, France. The thesis was supervised by Stefan Jansson.

Title of the thesis: How could Christmas trees remain ever green? Photosynthetic acclimation of Scots pine and Norway spruce needles during winter

Link to Pushan Bag's PhD thesis
 

Further reading

More information about Pushan Bag’s long-term postdoctoral fellowship from the International Human Frontier Science Program Organization

Link to the press release about the Nature Communication article in which the findings about the photosynthetic short-cut in conifer trees were published in 2020


For more information, please contact:

Pushan Bag
Umeå Plant Science Centre
Department of Plant Physiology
Umeå University
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Twitter: @BagPushan

Flower with bee
Flower with beePhoto: Christopher Tompkins

How does pollen look like that causes allergies? Which plants have people eaten thousand years ago? Why are plants interesting for space research? On Saturday, 21st of May, Umeå Plant Science Centre together with Curiosum is arranging a day filled with knowledge and interactive activities around plant and plant research. The event will take place at Curiosum, Umeå University.

The aim of the Fascination of Plants Day is to put the fascinating world of plants in the spotlight and to remind people that plants and plant research are important for developing a society that is both economically, socially and environmentally sustainable.

"Plant research does not usually receive as much attention as for example medical research, but it is very important in meeting all the challenges we face currently", says Anne Honsel, project manager and communication officer at Umeå Plant Science Centre (UPSC) that belongs to Umeå University and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. "On this day, we do not want to focus too much on challenges. We instead want to show that plant research is very exciting, and I hope that everyone who visits us will have a fun and fascinating day."

Umeå Plant Science Centre coordinates the event, which takes place at Curiosum in Umeå. Many young and enthusiastic plant scientists will share their knowledge and offer fun and interesting short lectures and interactive experiments at fifteen different stations for the whole family.

In addition, Bonsai sällskapet will show bonsai from forest trees and the Friends of Arboretum Norr will present the diversity of trees and shrubs that grow at the Arboretum in Baggböle and that originate from different parts of the world.

"We of course want to show what we do in our research at UPSC, but that is only part of the big picture. That is why we are also inviting researchers outside of UPSC and other parties to participate to show the diversity of the plant world and everything that is connected with it," says Anne Honsel.

About the event:

When: Saturday, 21 May, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Where: Curiosum, Umeå Arts Campus, Östra Strandgatan 32, Umeå

Read more about all the activities on Fascination of Plants Day on May 21

About the Fascination of Plants Day:

Fascinating Plants Day is organised in Umeå by Umeå Plant Science Centre together with Curiosum, Umeå University and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. It is an international event that is celebrated all over the world. More than 500 scientific institutions, universities and botanical gardens in more than 50 countries will open their doors to visitors.

For more information, please contact:

Anne Honsel
Public Relations Officer
e-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
phone: +46 (0)70 285 6657

Text: Ingrid Söderbergh

Portrait photo of Petra Marhava in front of plants
Portrait photo of Petra Marhava with plants in the backgroundPhoto: Peter Marhavy

Kungliga Skytteanska Samfundet announced this week that Petra Marhava, new group leader at UPSC, will receive a prize for young, outstanding researchers. The prize is assigned to the Faculty of Forest Sciences at SLU and is given out once per year.

Petra Marhava started to work at UPSC in September 2020 as researcher affiliated with Stéphanie Robert’s group at the Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology. Since this month, she is officially group leader at UPSC and is now starting to set up her own research group which will investigate how plants deal with temperature stress.

Kungl. Skytteanska Samfundet motivated their choice with Petra Marhava’s exceptionally well publishing record in high-ranking journals and her successful grant applications. End of 2021, she managed to get funding from the Swedish Research Council and a very prestigious Starting Grant from the European Research Council (ERC). They also highlighted in their motivation that Petra Marhava’s research covers a cutting-edge topic with respect to climate change and expected temperature variations.

Every year, Kungl. Skytteanska Samfundet, which is a scientific academy based in Umeå, is handing out prizes for outstanding research and cultural commitment. The academy awards in total six prizes to young researchers, a cultural prize, the “Margareta och Eric Modigs” prize that is assigned to the Medical Faculty of Umeå University, a prize for a young artist from the Umeå Academy of Fine Arts, a prize for a young musician from the School of Music in Piteå and the “Samfundets stora pris”.


All prize winners awarded by the Kungl. Skytteanska Samfundet in 2022 (only in Swedish)

More information about Kungl. Skytteanska Samfundet

More information about Petra Marhava’s ERC project


For more information, please contact:

Petra Marhava
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.
Phone: +46 (0)90 786 8628
Twitter: @MarhavaPetra

Portrait photo of Muhammad Shahzad Anjam in the UPSC growth facility
Portrait photo of Muhammad Shahzad Anjam in the UPSC growth facilityMuhammad Shahzad Anjam will become a MSCA postdoctoral fellow (photo: Maria Kidwai)

The European Commission awarded Muhammad Shahzad Anjam with one of the prestigious Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) postdoctoral fellowships. This funding allows him to continue his research on how plants react to mechanical damage caused by nematodes, microscopic plant parasites. Muhammad Shahzad is working in Peter Marhavy’s group at the Umeå Plant Science Centre and SLU.

The Marie Curie postdoctoral fellowship programme is very competitive. What was motivating you to apply there?

Muhammad Shahzad Anjam: The Marie Curie fellowship is very prestigious and offers very generous funding for the period of the fellowship but also much more. It comprises a career development package including training events, collaborations through secondments, opportunities for networking and outreach programs to reach out to a broader audience. Keeping all these aspects in mind, I was highly motivated to apply for the fellowship to excel in my career.

How does it feel to be among the 14 percent that received a grant?

Muhammad Shahzad Anjam: Surely, these are very exciting moments. Not only it is now a landmark in my CV but also gives me confidence about the quality of my proposed research project and the way we designed it. I also feel very grateful to Peter Marhavy who provided me with constant support and encouragement during the whole course of the application process.

What do you plan to do in your project?

Muhammad Shahzad Anjam: The project is about plant-parasitic cyst nematodes which are major threat to the agricultural production. The nematodes attack on the roots of the host plant. They destroy several cell layers when entering the root before they select one cell close to the nutrient rich tissues where they build up a specialized feeding structure – the syncytium – and start feeding. My project focusses on how root’s various cell files respond to the damage that is caused by the nematode when invading the root. We want to resolve cellular defence responses by mimicking nematode injury using a very fine laser beam to damage one single root cell in a controlled manner and analyse tissue-specific responses using multidisciplinary state-of-the-art techniques.

Will you perform all your work at UPSC or are you also planning short-term secondments somewhere else?

Muhammad Shahzad Anjam: Most of the experiments and bioinformatic analyses, we will perform using facilities available at UPSC. However, I will travel to the Department of Ecophysiology at the Institute of Cellular and Molecular Botany (IZMB), University of Bonn in Germany. The group is specialized in using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) to analyse the biochemistry of plant-based biopolymers that modify the cell wall interfaces according to the environmental cues. Here, I will analyse compositional changes in various plant biopolymers which create physical barriers against invading pathogens after inducing controlled injury using laser ablation.

You started at UPSC in the beginning of 2021. What was motivating you to join UPSC?

Muhammad Shahzad Anjam: I was inspired by Peter Marhavy’s research group which investigates short distance communication in response to wound stress in plants, focussing on cellular resolution and by the excellent working environment at UPSC. About 30 research groups are working at UPSC on various aspects of plant biology and all researchers share common laboratories, instruments, kitchens and offices. This creates a great interactive atmosphere to discuss and exchange ideas. By having seminars and discussions on relevant as well as interdisciplinary topics, I can learn a lot about the different fields. So overall, a very healthy and balanced working environment at UPSC encouraged me to join the institute. Further, I found that at UPSC, researchers from all around the world make it a very cosmopolitan and multicultural environment to work.

Do you have some tips for other young researchers applying for similar competitive fellowships?

Muhammad Shahzad Anjam: Yes, sure. I think, chances of obtaining a fellowship are significantly increased if we understand the core objectives of the awarding agency and formulate the application accordingly. For MSCA fellowships, the purpose is of course on a high-quality research project, but it also asks to enhance independence and leadership skills of the researcher. Therefore, designing an innovative project package using advanced technology, ambitiousness, interdisciplinary approaches and networking through secondments will enormously help to hunt a fellowship.

Project title: The plant’s internal cellular sensing and response measures to mechanical breach

Link to the official news from Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions


The Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) are supporting 1156 post-doctoral researchers chosen from a total of 8356 in the 2021 Postdoctoral Fellowship call. The goal of the fellowship which is part of Horizon Europe is to increase the competence and skills of the postdoctoral fellows to improve their career prospects in academia and beyond. Emphasis is also put on interdisciplinary, inter-sectoral and international experience as well as on enhancing networking and communication capacities with the science community and with the general public.

European Union flag emblem in white and blue joined by a funding statement (Funded by the EU)

For more information, please contact:

Muhammad Shahzad Anjam
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.
Twitter: @shahzadbio

Portrait photo of Pushan Bag in front of trees
Portrait photo of Pushan Bag in front of treesPhD student Pushan Bag (Photo: Jenna Lihavainen)

This week, the International Human Frontier Science Program Organization announced the 65 young researchers that were chosen for a long-term postdoctoral fellowship. One of them and the only one from Sweden is Pushan Bag, PhD student in Stefan Jansson’s group at Umeå Plant Science Centre, Umeå University. He plans to use the grant to join Professor Barry Bruce’s group at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville to work on protein transport during chloroplast development.

Currently, Pushan Bag is working on finalizing his PhD thesis which he will defend in May this year at the Department of Plant Physiology, Umeå University. The Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) fellowship provides him with support for three years and will allow him to broaden his knowledge by working on a new research field in a new research environment.

“Human Frontiers was established in 1989 and is one of the oldest and prestigious postdoctoral grants in life science. I am delighted to receive this grant even before I have officially defended my PhD thesis”, says Pushan Bag. “I am immensely grateful to Umeå University and Umeå Plant Science Centre for the excellent guidance and support during my PhD, which helped me to successfully secure this grant.”

In Stefan Jansson’s group, Pushan Bag is working on how trees adjust their photosynthesis during winter to cope with the cold temperatures. He will continue to work on photosynthesis in the group of Professor Barry Bruce but will move on to a completely different aspect. Using a multifaceted systemic approach, he wants to study the dynamics of transporter proteins that are localised in the chloroplast membrane and facilitate the selective import of other proteins into the chloroplast.

“During my master’s degree at University of Hyderabad in India around 2014, I heard a lecture by Barry Bruce in a conference. While working with chloroplast proteins during my PhD in Stefan Jansson’s group, I became curious on how cells sort proteins to a specific cell organelle,” explains Pushan Bag. “So, I thought of working on chloroplast protein targeting and the first name that came into my mind was Barry Bruce’s. That is why I approached him last year, explained my project idea and showed interest in joining his lab.”

The aim of the International HFSP Organization is to promote international collaboration and training in cutting-edge, interdisciplinary life science research. A total of 493 applications have been received for this year’s HFSP fellowship programme. The 65 chosen fellows are expected to move on to a new field of research in a laboratory in a new country. They will receive a financial package including living, research and travel allowance but also become part of the HFSP network.

“In every step of my PhD I enjoyed the freedom of developing my thoughts and continuing my research in the direction I felt attracted to while Stefan Jansson guided me very carefully all along the way,” says Pushan Bag. “This motivated me to apply for an independent postdoc grant that could provide me with the same freedom and further shape my future in my own way but under the umbrella of an experienced coach.”


Project title: "Assembly, dynamics, and plasticity of plastid translocon biogenesis"


Link to the press release from the International Human Frontier Science Program Organization


For more information, please contact:

Pushan Bag
Umeå Plant Science Centre
Department of Plant Physiology
Umeå University
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Twitter: @BagPushan

Portrait photo of Stéphane Verger standing next to poplar trees in a greenhouse
Portrait photo of Stéphane Verger standing next to poplar trees in a greenhouseStéphane Verger in the UPSC greenhouse (photo: Johan Gunséus)

Is it possible to improve wood quality without cutting down on yield? Stéphane Verger, group leader at UPSC, SLU, wants to understand how wood fibres grow during wood formation and which role mechanical forces play in this process. He hopes that this knowledge will help to improve wood quality in fast growing trees. The Novo Nordisk Foundation awarded him recently with an Emerging Investigator Grant and he will use this money to expand his research to aspen.

The Novo Nordisk Foundation granted your project belatedly because one of the firstly chosen applicants had to reject the grant. How did you feel when you got to know that your project got approved lately?

Stéphane Verger: That was an amazing and completely unexpected news! Overall, this is really a great opportunity for me to strongly boost the research in my lab and in particular kick-start a new branch of my research focusing on the study of wood fibres and mechanical signalling during wood formation.

What do you plan to do with this grant?

Stéphane Verger: There are mainly three parts. First, we will study some of the fundamental biology behind wood formation down to the cellular and sub-cellular level. The goal is to characterize how wood and more specifically wood fibres grow “live”. This is particularly challenging since wood growth takes place very deep within the stem. So, we will develop new methods that will allow us to observe wood growth in “live” samples. We will also mechanically stimulate wood forming tissues and study how they perceive this stimulation and react. In the second part, we want to identify the genes that are responsible for mechanical signal responses during wood formation as well as those controlling wood fibre length and wood mechanical properties. Finally, we will use these genes to generate new trees and study if and how modifications of these genes can improve fibre and wood quality. Providing that we manage to genetically improve wood quality in some of these trees, they might be used later on in forestry but first of all, all trees will serve to better understand wood formation in general.

How does this project connect to your ongoing research?

Stéphane Verger: Since my PhD, I have developed a strong expertise in plant cell and developmental biology as well as plant biomechanics, in particular concerning the question of how cells stick together, called cell-cell adhesion. When starting my independent research group at UPSC, I continued to study cell-cell adhesion in plants and how it may be controlled by mechanical signalling. We are employing highly interdisciplinary approaches combining biology and physics but focus so far on the model species Arabidopsis thaliana which is an herbaceous plant. Now, we want to make use of our expertise and knowledge and transfer it to the tree species aspen, to better understand wood formation.

Why do you think this information is important?

Stéphane Verger: Wood formation is a fascinating developmental process to study, and it is still largely underexplored. I am mainly interested in fundamental discoveries, but I think there is also a major societal need for this research. A large majority of the materials and consumables of our everyday life derive from fossil-based resources, which is not sustainable in many regards. New regulations throughout the world push companies and consumers to switch back to bio-based materials. Recent developments have shown that products from wood and wood fibres could soon substitute almost any fossil-based material but there are environmental concerns regarding the current rate of forest harvesting. We need to find long term solutions that do not compromise ecosystems and ensure a sustainable production of high-yield and also high-quality bio-based raw material.

I think there may be at least two realistic ways to solve this issue: 1) to improve growth rate of trees that make high quality wood but grow slowly, or 2) to improve wood quality of trees that grow fast but have low quality wood. These two properties (growth rate and wood quality) appear to act largely “antagonistic” so far but if we understand how “wood quality” and “wood growth” are controlled, we can maybe start to uncouple these two properties and make wood that grows fast and has high quality. With this project we hope to understand how “wood quality” is regulated and test the effect of modifying this regulation in trees that already grow fast.

What motivated you to become a researcher?

Stéphane Verger: I like biology and to understand how things work. I really didn’t know if I wanted to go into research until my master’s degree, but I did some internships in research labs and I realized that I really enjoyed it! So, I did a PhD, a post doc, and then got very lucky to get the position I have now.

What do you like about working at UPSC?

Stéphane Verger: I really like that we have a lot of shared resources, both in terms of equipment and expertise. I think that was extremely helpful for starting my group. I also like how international it is and that there is a very good and friendly atmosphere in general.


More about Stéphane Verger's research and his new project

Stéphane Verger is researcher at the Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and started his research group at UPSC in January 2019. He and his group study how cells in a tissue attach to each other, also called cell adhesion. They are focusing on the physical stress that occurs when cells grow and use interdisciplinary approaches including biophysical tools, advanced microscopy, and computational modelling.

In the new project funded by the Novo Nordisk Foundation they will focus on wood formation in aspen. During this process, the tips of wood fibre cells, that make up the bulk of the wood, elongate by squeezing in between adjacent cells - a mechanism that requires a tight control of cell adhesion. It is also known that the region of the trunk in which the wood is being formed is under high mechanical compression, and this may serve as a signal regulating wood formation. Very much about this regulation is still unknown and Stéphane Verger and his group will work on understanding these processes better. They think that this knowledge might contribute to improve wood quality in fast growing trees without impairing the yield.

Project title:
GoodFib: Establishment of trees with high-yield and high-quality wood fibers for more sustainable improved feedstock

News from Novo Nordisk Foundation about their Research Leader Programme 2021
More information about the Research Leader Programme of Novo Nordisk Foundation 

For questions, please contact:

Stéphane Verger
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.
Twitter: @StephaneVrg
https://www.upsc.se/stephane_verger

Portraitphoto of Karin Ljung sitting in the metabolomics lab at UPSC
Portraitphoto of Karin Ljung sitting in the metabolomics lab at UPSCKarin Ljung at the Swedish Metabolomics Centre (photo: Fredrik Larsson)

Today is the International Day for Women and Girls in Science. We use this opportunity to spotlight Professor Karin Ljung, one of our scientists who has been at UPSC since it was formed in 1999. Her dedication, not at least as head of department, at one of the two UPSC departments has helped to transition UPSC to where it is now. Here, you can read more about Karin Ljung’s career, how she experienced the development at UPSC towards a better gender balance and about her ideas to inspire the next generation of women in science.

What made you become interested in science?

Karin Ljung: I believe I have always been interested in natural sciences, especially biology. Some of my other interests when I was young was astronomy and paleontology (read dinosaurs), and I always liked mathematics. My parents were very supportive, although they never had a chance to study themselves. We spent much of our free time in our cottage and in the forest, fishing, picking berries and mushrooms etc. When I started my biology studies at Umeå University, I also got very interested in the chemistry part of the education, and my research interests since then have been at the intersection between biology and chemistry.

You worked long as research engineer before you started your PhD. What motivated you to take this step?

Karin Ljung: Coming from a family with no academic traditions and living in a small town in northern Sweden, I did not have any good role models and examples for an academic career. So, it was really a big step for me to do a PhD. Finally, I realized that I was stupid not to do so. I was fortunate at that time to be working in a research group at UPSC with a very good supervisor and mentor, Professor Göran Sandberg. He gave me all the support and freedom that I needed to pursue a research career, and he has been a real source of inspiration for me.

What kind of obstacles did you have to overcome during your career? What has helped you in your career?

Karin Ljung: I feel that the main obstacles have been my background and my introvert personality, that made me feel very uncertain of my potential. I have worked really hard to overcome my natural shyness and to become bolder. I’m not sure that I have succeeded though, but at least I have improved.
One reason that I have been working at the same department since 2000 is that the Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology was and is a great place to work at, with a really supportive and friendly atmosphere. When I started my own research group in 2005, I also received monetary support from the UPSC Berzelii Centre, especially focused on supporting early career female group leaders. This support, as well as the continuous support from Kempestiftelserna, has been instrumental for me in order to establish and develop my independent research group at UPSC.

Do you think that more gender equality benefits science?

Karin Ljung: Definitely, diversity is always positive, and all workplaces benefit from better gender equality. Still, there are many obstacles that need to be tackled, especially for women. Science is very competitive, and we need to make it possible for young scientists to combine family life with research, and make sure that they get continuous support to be productive during their whole research career.

Since 2007, UPSC is working on achieving its goal of 40-60 percent women at all career stages and currently 45 percent of the group leaders are female. How did you experience this development throughout the years?

Karin Ljung: It has been very positive! When I started, very few women were group leaders and professors. Also, UPSC was not the international workplace that it is now. I am very happy with the recruitments that we have made at UPSC during the recent years. We now have a group of early and middle career scientists that are very skilled and productive, and I’m confident that they will continue to keep UPSC at the forefront of plant biology.

What do you think we can do to inspire the next generation of women in science?

Karin Ljung: Good role models are very important, and we need to show that it is possible (and fun!) to do research. There are very few jobs that have the same amount of freedom as research, and it is important not to kill enthusiasm and creativity with “new public management”.

For six years you have been the head of the Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology at UPSC. Do you have any suggestions to the current UPSC management to improve gender equality at UPSC?

Karin Ljung: We need to have good recruitment strategies to attract top researchers to UPSC, and there are many excellent women in that group. Continued support for young researchers is also very important, there are always periods in research careers when funding is running low, and it can be difficult to be productive. Also, it is important that teaching and academic housework is spread even between men and women, in order to benefit, instead of being an obstacle, for their careers.

Karin Ljung worked for several years as research engineer, first at SLU in Umeå and then at Umeå University, before she started her PhD studies at SLU in 1996. After finishing her PhD in 2002, she started her own research group in 2005 and was appointed professor in 2015. Her research focuses on root development and root to shoot communication, with special emphasis on the roles of growth regulating compounds like plant hormones during these developmental processes. Many of her research findings have been published in highly cited journals, resulting in Karin Ljung being on the Clarivate Analytics list of Highly Cited Researchers for nine years in a row now. In 2009, she received the OlChemim Award for her research on plant hormones, and in 2019 she received the Scandinavian Plant Physiology Society Award. During her career, Karin Ljung has accepted several additional commissions within UPSC, but also at the faculty and national level. Among others, she was for several years member of the Faculty Board of the Faculty of Forest Sciences at SLU, as well as Deputy Dean and Dean of the Faculty of Forest Sciences. From 2016 until 2021, she was the Head of the SLU Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology, one of the two Departments that form UPSC. At the same time, she was also member of the Scientific Council at Formas, a Swedish governmental research council for sustainable development.

More about Karin Ljung’s research


The purpose of the International Day for Women and Girls in Science is to empower women and girls in science to achieve equality. It was established in 2005 by the United Nations General Assembly and implemented by UNESCO and UN-Women. According to UN-Women, about 30 percent of researchers world-wide and only 12% of members of national science academies are women and they are still disadvantaged in their career.
Portraits of Stefan Jansson and Ove Nilsson
Portraits of Stefan Jansson and Ove NilssonStefan Jansson (left) and Ove Nilsson (right), photo: Fredrik Larsson

Two professors at UPSC are assigned decision-making roles in promoting Swedish research and innovation. Stefan Jansson has been elected the Chairman of the Class for biosciences at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences making him also a member of the Academy Board. Ove Nilsson has been elected to Formas´ Scientific Council, where UPSC professor Karin Ljung previously was a member. The appointments reflect Stefan Jansson’s and Ove Nilsson’s established stand in the scientific community.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences is most known for awarding the Nobel Prizes. Its overall objective is to promote science of the highest quality by fostering development and innovation in Swedish research. As member of the Academy Board and Chairman of the Class for biosciences, Stefan Jansson will be also involved in planning activities of the Academy and making sure that the available resources will be used efficiently. He will join his first board meeting on the 3rd of February 2022.

“I have been a member of the Class for biosciences since 2014 and now I am honored to expand my work for the Academy,” says Stefan Jansson.

About one week later, on the 10th of February, Ove Nilsson is meeting for the first time with the new Formas´ Scientific Council that has been elected for the term 2022-2024. The Scientific Council is the decision-making body of Formas, a government research council for sustainable development. Formas funds research within the areas of environment, agricultural sciences and spatial planning.

“I am looking forward to meeting the new Scientific Council and to contributing in decisions aiming for a more sustainable world”, says Ove Nilsson.

Read more about the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
Link to the Academy Board at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

Read more about Formas
Link to the Scientific Council at Formas (in Swedish)



Portrait photo of Petra Marhava
Portrait photo of Petra Marhava in front of treesPhoto: Peter Marhavy

The European Research Council (ERC) announced today the winners of the ERC Starting Grants. One of them is Petra Marhava who will use this grant to understand better how plants deal with temperature variations which are expected to increase through the climate change. The call from ERC is highly competitive covering all disciplines of research. Petra Marhava will receive for her project "Hot-and-Cold" about €1.5 million and use this money to start her own group at UPSC.

High and cold temperatures can negatively affect growth and development of plants. Petra Marhava, researcher at the Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, wants to understand what happens in the cell under such temperature stress. She will focus on the plant hormone auxin and analyse how it helps the plant to adjust its growth and development under cold or heat.

“I started to work with auxin during my PhD thesis and there is already much known about how it controls growth and development but there is still a lot of information missing about the regulation of auxin transport during temperature stress responses,” says Petra Marhava. “I want to fill this gap and study what happens on the cellular and molecular level when plants experience cold or heat. I think that this knowledge is needed to figure out how climate variability will impact agriculture and natural ecosystems.”

Petra Marhava will work with the model organism Arabidopsis thaliana, focusing on the root that is easy to access with advanced imaging techniques. She plans to use high-resolution imaging techniques with a temperature-controlled stage system. This will allow her to control the ambient temperature and directly monitor the changes that appear in the cells under cold or heat treatment. She will complement these studies with additional large-scale analyses of proteins and gene activities and with chemical genomic screen.

After her master’s degree in Molecular Biology, Petra Marhava worked as cytogeneticist at the National Cancer Institute of Slovak Republic. In 2015, she finished her PhD in Jiří Friml’s group at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria and moved then on to a postdoc in Christian Hardtke’s group at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland before she joined UPSC in 2020. 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. She will start setting up her group at UPSC in summer 2022 when she comes back from her maternity leave.

The European Research Council, Europe’s premiere funding organisation for research and innovation, awarded in total 397 early-career researchers from 45 nationalities with ERC Starting Grants. The projects come from a broad range of different disciplines and the call is very competitive with a success rate of about ten percent. More than 4000 proposals were submitted to last year’s call. The selected proposals will be carried out in 22 countries belonging to or associated with the European Union (EU). This was the first call under the EU’s new Research & Innovation programme Horizon Europe with an investment of €619 million.

Link to the press release from the European Research Council

For more information, please contact:

Petra Marhava
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.
Twitter: @MarhavaPetra