Top view on a snowy forest
Top view on a snowy forestPhoto by Atle Mo on Unsplash

The Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research, SSF, announced that three projects form UPSC will receive funding. Main applicants of the projects in the call for “biotechnology and plant breeding – food, feed and forest” are María Rosario García-Gil, Stefan Jansson and Ove Nilsson. They plan to develop models for the sustainable development of future forest trees using biotechnology and new digital tools.

Conventional tree breeding is slow. It takes about 25 years to complete a breeding cycle for pine and spruce. Ove Nilsson, professor at the Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), and his co-applicants Jens Sundström, SLU Uppsala, Harry Wu, UPSC and Mari Suontama, Skogforsk, want to address this problem by making Norway spruce mature faster so that they set their cones earlier. With the help of this they will develop a new tool for rapid breeding of trees that are better adapted to a new climate and new diseases.

“Forestry in Sweden currently faces several problems. The demand for forest products increases but also the need to preserve biodiversity and counteract climate change. We hope that our research can contribute to solve some of these problems”, says Ove Nilsson who is also the director of UPSC. “Researchers from UPSC submitted several research projects for this call from SSF and it is fantastic news that three of them got approved. I am very delighted about this outcome. This is a nice Christmas present not only for me and my co-applicants but for all of UPSC.”

María Rosario García-Gil, researcher at the same department as Ove Nilsson at SLU, and her co-applicants from SLU Umeå and Uppsala, Skogforsk and RISE plan to address the same problem: to shorten the breeding cycle of Norway spruce. However, they are going for a completely different approach which they call “landscape breeding”. They want to develop a digital breeding tool for Norway spruce that helps to speed up the breeding cycle and in parallel allows for the preservation of biodiversity. Using remote sensors, they plan to monitor tree quality and health as well as local environmental data and combine this with modern DNA analyses.

“Our approach is based on commercial forests of Norway spruce. The trees originally derive from breeding programs but are openly pollinated by surrounding trees”, explains María Rosario García-Gil. “The sensor data will help us to identify trees with outstanding features like for example better growth, trunk quality and health and link the tree performance to environmental data on a landscape scale. We will use DNA analyses to identify the underlying genetic relationships and incorporate all data into breeding strategies. This procedure will fasten the breeding process without compromising key biotopes that are important to preserve biodiversity.”

When optimising plant growth, the capacity of photosynthesis and nitrogen are often limiting factors. Stefan Jansson, professor at the Department of Plant Physiology at Umeå University, and his co-applicants Olivier Keech from the same department and Henrik Böhlenius from SLU Alnarp, want to enhance photosynthesis and also optimize nitrogen balance in deciduous trees.

“We must set aside forests in Sweden to preserve biodiversity, but we need, in parallell, to increase the productivity in other areas to meet the increasing need for forest products”, says Stefan Jansson. “One way to address this is short rotation plantations with fast growing trees like aspen and poplars. If they could be coupled to bio-CCS (carbon capture and storage) they would provide raw material/energy while giving negative carbon dioxide emissions. We hope to make such plantations economically more attractive by improving their productivity and reducing nitrogen input and therefore contributing to Sweden’s goal to become carbon neutral by 2045.”

The call “Biotechnology and plant breeding – food, feed and forest” from the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research (SSF) is a multidisciplinary biotechnological initiative that focused on plant breeding. The long-term goal is to make Sweden more self-sufficient and strengthen its exports while reducing the climate impact. Together with a fourth project from KTH Stockholm the projects will share 120 million SEK. The funding is assigned for a five-year period.


Link to the press release from SSF

The projects

  • Landscape Breeding: A new paradigm in forest tree management

Main applicant and contact:
María Rosario García-Gil, 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.
http://www.upsc.se/rosario_garcia

Co-applicants: Eva Lindberg, Johan Holmgren and Kenneth Olofsson, the Department of Forest Resource Management, SLU Umeå, Thomas Lundmark, Department of Forest Ecology and Management, SLU Umeå, Malin Elfstrand and Jan Stenlid, Department of Forest Mycology and Plant Pathology, SLU Uppsala, Nicolas Delhomme, Umeå Plant Science Centre, Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology, SLU Umeå, Mari Suontamaa, Skogforsk and Gerhard Scheepers, RISE

  • Trees that grow better

Main applicant and contact:
Stefan Jansson
, Umeå Plant Science Centre, Department of Plant Physiology, Umeå University
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
https://www.upsc.se/stefan_jansson

Co-applicants: Olivier Keech, Umeå Plant Science Centre, Department of Plant Physiology, Umeå University and Henrik Böhlenius, Southern Swedish Forest Research Centre, SLU Alnarp

  • Rapid-Cycling Breeding

Main applicant and contact:
Ove Nilsson, Umeå Plant Science Centre, Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
http://www.upsc.se/ove_nilsson

Co-applicants: Jens Sundström, Department of Plant Biology, SLU Uppsala, Harry Wu, Umeå Plant Science Centre, Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology, SLU Umeå and Mari Suontama from Skogforsk

Clément Boussardon and Catherine Bellini holding the UPSC Agrisera Award
Clément Boussardon and Catherine Bellini holding the UPSC Agrisera AwardCatherine Bellini (right), chairmen of the UPSC Board, hands over the UPSC Agrisera Prize 2021 to Clément Boussardon (left) (photo: Anne Honsel)

[2021-12-08] During yesterday’s traditional UPSC Christmas lunch, Clément Boussardon was awarded with the UPSC Agrisera Prize 2021. He is acknowledged for his scientific achievements resulting in establishing valuable methods for the scientific community and his commitment for the UPSC community and work environment. The prize was handed over by Catherine Bellini, chairmen of the UPSC Board, and Fanny Högdahl from Agrisera.

Clément Boussardon came to UPSC in 2017 joining Olivier Keech’s group as postdoc. During his time at UPSC, he developed methods to tissue-specifically isolate plant organelles and contributed to establish a gene atlas for iron containing proteins. Most of these tools are already published and available for the scientific community at UPSC and beyond. Clément Boussardon engages actively in scientific discussions at UPSC trying to help advancing also other research projects.

Besides his scientific contribution, Clément Boussardon took responsibility to improve the work environment at UPSC. He was part of the group organising a new common laboratory that was established in 2019 and he continuously helps to improve the laboratory organisation with suggestions and active support. One of the two nominations that were send in for Clément Boussardon even pointed out that he is organising floorball games for the UPSC community in his free time.

“There are many people at UPSC who we would like to acknowledge and thank for their work and the commitment they invest into making UPSC a good place to work,” says Catherine Bellini, chairmen of the UPSC Board who announced the winner of the prize. “It is every year very difficult to choose one out of several good suggestions, but I think the board took a very good decision.”

Six nomination letters were sent in for this year’s UPSC Agrisera Prize. Two of them were for Clément Boussardon. The Prize - a travel voucher - is sponsored by Agrisera and awards every year a PhD student, postdoc or technician for excellent scientific achievement and great commitment to improve the work environment at UPSC. Everyone working at UPSC can nominate a colleague for the UPSC Agrisera Prize and the members of the UPSC board select the winner of the prize.

Portrait photos of Stefan Jansson on the left side, Peter Kindgren with an Arabidopsis plants in the middle and Hannle Tuominen with aspen trees on the right side
Portrait photos of Stefan Jansson on the left side, Peter Kindgren with an Arabidopsis plants in the middle and Hannle Tuominen with aspen trees on the right sideThe three researchers that received funding from Formas: Stefan Jansson (left; photo: Fredrik Larsson), Peter Kindgren (middle; photo: Fredrik Larsson) and Hannle Tuominen (right; photo: Alekzandra Granath)

The Swedish governmental research council for sustainable development, Formas, granted last week the research projects of Stefan Jansson, Peter Kindgren and Hannele Tuominen. The researchers plan to study how aspen trees regulate autumn senescence, develop a GMO-free approach to improve crops and identify aspen trees that use nitrogen most efficiently for short-rotation cultivation.

A changing climate might change the length of the growing season and trees need to adjust the time when they shed their leaves to the changing conditions. Stefan Jansson, Professor at the Department of Plant Physiology at Umeå University, plans to investigate how autumn senescence is regulated in different, naturally occurring aspen trees and build on the knowledge that he and his group has already gained throughout the last years.

Their idea is to identify genes that play a role in the regulation of autumn senescence and use them to select trees with promising features but also to introduce targeted gene modifications in hybrid aspen. This collection of aspen trees will be tested under different conditions in the greenhouse and in the field to see how suited they are for breeding programmes. Stefan Jansson and his group plan to combine this project with a citizen science project on autumn senescence.

Peter Kindgren, researcher at the Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), plants to address a completely other problem. He aims on developing an approach to improve crops without genetical modification as the current regulations in the European Union do not allow to use such plants in agriculture. His idea is to use a plant internal mechanism to activate genes and like this make them for example more tolerant to cold.

The herbaceous plant Arabidopsis thaliana will be used as model to develop the GMO-free approach. Peter Kindgren and his group will focus on genes that allow plants to acclimatize to cold and compare their novel approach with traditional genetical modification techniques. When they have established the approach for Arabidopsis thaliana, the researchers want to transfer their approach to the commercially important crops barley and wheat.

Hannele Tuominen, professor at the Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology at SLU, wants to understand in her granted project how trees use nitrogen for wood formation. Nitrogen is the main growth limiting factor in boreal forests but adding nitrogen fertilizer to increase the productivity of the forest can affect the surrounding environment negatively. Hannele Tuominen and her group will study how different nitrogen forms and concentrations will affect the chemistry, structure and mechanical properties of the wood.

The researchers will focus on a natural collection of different Swedish Aspen trees. By comparing those trees and their reaction on different nitrogen treatments, they hope to understand better how nitrogen is used for wood formation. Their goal is to identify those trees that use nitrogen most efficiently to reduce the negative effect of nitrogen fertilisation without impairing valuable wood properties. According to the researchers, this selection of trees might help to make short-rotation cultivation of hybrid aspen more attractive in Sweden.

The projects:

  • How do trees survive winter?

Stefan Jansson
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.
https://www.upsc.se/stefan_jansson

  • A GMO-free approach in plants to boost food production

Peter Kindgren
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.
https://www.upsc.se/peter_kindgren

  • Towards improved nitrogen use efficiency in aspen trees

Hannele Tuominen
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.
https://www.upsc.se/hannele_tuominen

Link to the announcement from Formas

Laxmi Mishra harvesting leaves of Arabidopsis thaliana plants
Laxmi Mishra harvesting leaves of Arabidopsis thaliana plantsLaxmi Mishra has used weed Arabidopsis thaliana as model organism in her research about proteases. Photo: Anna-Lena Lindskog

Climate change with its extreme temperatures and fluctuating precipitations is affecting agricultural land conditions and crop yields. Therefore it is essential to understand and improve the details of plant growth. Laxmi Mishra has developed new knowledge about a family of chloroplast proteases called FtsH. She is defending her dissertation at Umeå University.

Proteases are proteins that degrade other proteins; they either clean the cell from malfunctioning enzymes, activate them or generate signals. Hence its the inevitable fate of a protein to meet a protease in its lifetime.

“While the importance of proteases for cell survival and for various diseases is well known, my work deals with inactivated proteases (pseudo-proteases), which therefore could be seen as “anti-heros””, Laxmi laughs.

Laxmi Mishra’s work focuses on a family of proteases called FtsH, which are present in human, animals, plants and bacteria. She is using the annual weed Arabidopsis thaliana as model organism. Plants do not only contain active FtsH proteases, but even some with mutations rendering them proteolytically inactive (termed FtsHis; i for inactive).

“Even though these enzymes are not functioning as proteases, we found them to be extremely important for the survival of plants.” says Laxmi.

Laxmi Mishra used molecular biological, biochemical and physiological methods to reveal the role of these inactive FtsH pseudo-proteases. She compared wild-type Arabidopsis thaliana plants with mutants depleted in single FtsHi proteins and exposed these plants to various stresses in controlled laboratory conditions, but even outside in the field.

Interestingly, Laxmi found that absence of one of the Ftshi enzyme improves drought tolerance in Arabidopsis thaliana. In a collaborative study carried out partly at UC Berekely/USDA in Professor Devin Coleman-Derr lab, she showed that the mutant plants sense the drought stress, but do not act according to it.

Link to the PhD thesis


About the dissertation:

On Thursday, the 2nd of December, Laxmi Mishra, Department of Chemistry at Umeå University, defends her PhD thesis titled FtsH metalloproteases and their pseudo-proteases in the chloroplast envelope of Arabidopsis thaliana. Her supervisor is Christiane Funk who is associated group leader at UPSC.

The dissertation takes place at 14.00 in Glasburen, KBC Building, Umeå University and be live broadcasted via Zoom. Faculty opponent is professor Catherine de Vitry, Institut de Biologie Physico-Chimique, Sorbonne University, France.

For more information, please contact:

Laxmi Mishra
Department of Chemistry
Umeå University
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Phone: +46 90 786 60 13

Text: Anna-Lena Lindskog

People building up a wooden-constructed greenhouse in NepalBuilding up a greenhouse in Nepal (Photo: Dhurva Gauchan)

Last week, SLU Global awarded Rosario García Gil from UPSC with seed funding for a collaboration project with Associate Professor Dhurva Gauchan from Kathmandu University. They plan to start a programme to sustainably marketize local medicinal plants from Nepal and such preserve such plants from extinction. Local communities will be the basis of the project. They shall be provided with knowledge and skills about plant nursing and marketing.

Many medicinal plants in Nepal are on the risk of extinction because of overexploitation for medicinal uses. The project of Rosario García Gil and Dhurva Gauchan aims on preventing species extinction and reducing the negative consequences of it on the local communities. Their idea is to involve the local communities in the preservation of endangered plants by training them on how to grow and nurse these plants in a sustainable way. In parallel they will be introduced to marketing and connected to national and international markets to enable them to rise an income by selling the plants.

“The indigenous people in Nepal are directly dependent on plant resources for food, shelter, medicine, and other needs which is one of the big reasons behind forest destruction and environmental degradation,” says Rosario García Gil, researcher at UPSC and Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. “We hope that we can counteract this development by activating this programme.”

One of the competence-building activities will be a training programme on herbal cultivation and nursery management for school children and local communities. The researchers plan to build a school medicinal plant garden. The students will be responsible for looking after the plants as part of their extra-curricular activities. This shall provide them not only with knowledge and gardening skills but also help to develop a bond with nature.

“My role has been to design the project and raise the funding. Now my colleague Dhurva Gauchan will take care of the operative aspects. Basically, he will conduct the project and I will supervise it”, explains Rosario García Gil. “I especially plan to keep an eye on the involvement of women. We want to ensure a fifty percent female participation as they are more disadvantaged in Nepal. If this project can help to improve their situation a little bit for example by facilitating them to start their own micro business by cultivating and commercializing medicinal plants, I will call the project successful.”

SLU Global awarded in total six of twenty submitted projects initiated by SLU employees. The projects are transdisciplinary and incorporate strong collaborations with researchers and practitioners in low-income or lower middle-income countries. The goal of the annual call from SLU Global is to support SLU’s work for global development and contribute to the UN’s sustainability goals and Agenda 2030.


Title of the project: Rescue, collection, and conservation of rare, endangered and threatened medicinal plants of Nepal

News from SLU Global

More information about SLU Global


For questions, please contact:

Rosario García Gil
Umeå Plant Science Centre
Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology
Umeå Plant Science Centre
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Twitter: @GarciaGilllab1
https://www.upsc.se/rosario_garcia

Evgeniy Donev in a forest
Evgeniy Donev in a forestPhD student Evgeniy Donev

Evgeniy Donev, PhD student in Ewa Mellerowicz group at UPSC, investigated different modification strategies to genetically improve hybrid aspen for biofuel production. The idea is to make sugars in wood cell walls that are the basis for biofuel production, better accessible by modifying the cell wall structure. Based on his results, Evgeniy Donev suggests using gentle modifications restricted to certain tissues and test them both in the greenhouse and under field conditions. He also advices to be cautious when introducing fungal proteins because they can trigger an immune response just by its presence. Evgeniy Donev will defend his PhD thesis at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences on Tuesday, 16th of November 2021.

How did you get to know about your PhD project and what aroused your interest in it?

Nicolas Delhomme and Nathaniel Street from UPSC were teachers of mine during my master’s degree in Civil Engineering in Biotechnology at Umeå University. Via a student bioinformatic project, I met my PhD supervisor Ewa Mellerowicz. Already during my studies, I realized that I do not only want to do bioinformatics but also know more about the biology behind. Ewa Mellerowicz planned a whole series of experiments and wanted to analyse them with a broad range of different techniques including also complex methods that produce a vast amount of data and require some bioinformatic knowledge. I was very interested in this and when I finished my master thesis in her group, I did not want to finish the project. Luckily, she thought the same and offered me to continue as a PhD student.

You chose as subtitle of your thesis “From design to the field”. Why do you think is this important?

My thesis addresses several problems important for improving trees - in our case hybrid aspen - for biorefinery and biofuel production. We identified the best engineering strategies based on experiments in the greenhouse and outside in the field. To evaluate the performance of promising genetically improved plants, it is important to test them in an environment which represents their usual cultivation conditions. In many cases, genetically modified plants grow well in the greenhouse but show undesirable reactions in the field conditions where they must cope with a multitude of different stresses like drought or pathogen attacks. Such undesirable reactions or off-target effects can erase all positive effects coming from the gene modification.

What is the best engineering strategy to modify hybrid aspen trees for biofuel production?

We investigated a collection of hybrid aspen in which cell wall properties were modified in different ways to make cellulose and the contained sugars better accessible for biofuel production. Trees in which the modification was introduced to the whole plant developed stronger off-target effects than trees in which the modification was restricted to certain tissues of the plant like for example the wood.
Some of our trees grew better in the greenhouse and in the field. The relative sugar amount that we extracted from those trees was not much higher than in non-modified trees, but they contributed with more biomass. So, the total amount of sugars was higher. On the contrary, we saw that we lose already all wins gained through the modification when the modified trees grew twenty percent less than non-modified trees. Our conclusion is that nothing can replace reduction in growth, and we should therefore choose gentle and more specific engineering strategies.

Which of your results was the most unexpected for you?

We expressed a protein from a wood decaying fungus in hybrid aspen that is supposed to loosen up the cell wall structure and thus make cellulose better accessible. It looked like the improvement worked because we could extract more sugar from these trees, but the off-target effects were really strong. The trees were dwarf, dropped their leaves very early and showed strong immune defence reactions. Only when we restricted the activity of the protein to the wood, all off-target effects were avoided, and the plants looked normal. However, I started to wonder if just the presence of the fungal gene could be recognised by the plant and trigger an immune response. To test this, we introduced an inactive version of the protein into hybrid aspen, and we saw the same strong effects on the plant. It turned out that the protein we introduced is recognized by the plant as pathogenic and causes an immune response. Sugars are remobilized as part of this response to supply the plant immune system with the necessary energy, which could possibly affect the sugar concentration extracted from the wood of these plants.

What were the biggest challenges you faced during your PhD?

My group is focussing on cell wall formation in the wood and not on plant-pathogen interaction. It was very challenging to convince them that the changes we saw in those trees in which the fungal protein was active all over the plant, is coming from the reaction of the immune system and not from the activity of the introduced fungal protein. I had to dig deep into the available literature and develop my analytical skills, think through my story thoroughly and keep on discussing with my group. I am very grateful to Ewa Mellerowicz because her support and trust in my skills combined with her positively demanding attitude was motivating me a lot during this time.

What are you planning to do now?

Research in plant science will be in one way or the other part of my future, not least that I see that there are many open questions that are not answered yet. I plan to stay in the group of Ewa Mellerowicz for the next year. We have several very exciting projects which we are currently working on, and I hope that we generate useful knowledge that helps to better understand the complex plant system.


About the public defence:

Evgeniy Donev, Umeå Plant Science Centre, Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, will defend his PhD thesis on Tuesday, 16th of November 2021. Faculty opponent will be Sharon Regan, Department of Biology, Queens University, Kingston Ontario, Canada. The thesis was supervised by Ewa Mellerowicz. The dissertation will be live broadcasted via Zoom.

Title of the thesis: Modification of forest trees by genetic engineering - From design to the field
Link to the thesis: https://pub.epsilon.slu.se/25690/


For more information, please contact:

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

Collage with portrait photos of Stefan Jansson, Karin Ljung, Petra Marhava, Ewa Mellerowicz and Olivier Keech
Collage with portrait photos of Stefan Jansson, Karin Ljung, Petra Marhava, Ewa Mellerowicz and Olivier KeechStefan Jansson (top left; photo: Fredrik Larsson), Karin Ljung (top middle; photo: Fredrik Larsson), Petra Marhava (bottom left; photo: Peter Marhavy), Ewa Mellerowicz (bottom middle) and Olivier Keech (right; photo: Fredrik Larsson)

The Swedish Research Council granted last week four projects from UPSC. Stefan Jansson, Karin Ljung and Ewa Mellerowicz received a project grant and Petra Marhava receives a starting grant to establish her own group at UPSC. All four will address basic research questions aiming on understanding plant development and their interaction with their environment. In addition, Formas approved one applied project the week before where Olivier Keech is involved and that aims to use artificial intelligence to make urban food production more sustainable.

Stefan Jansson, professor at the Department of Plant Physiology at Umeå University, focuses in his research on the mechanisms that allow trees to survive the winter. The new project is based on previous research. It aims to use a systems biology approach to understand how autumn leaf senescence is regulated on the molecular level. A second part of the project focusses on a novel regulatory mechanism that allows conifers to keep their needles green during winter. Stefan Jansson and his group want to look deeper into this mechanism in conifer trees and also try to see which role it plays in leaf shedding trees.

The group of Karin Ljung, who is professor at the Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology at SLU, is researching on root development and shoot-root communication. In the new project, they will investigate how lateral roots are initiated focusing on the processes that are happening within the root cells, particularly on the role of the different cell compartments. They aim to develop new methods to analyse plant growth regulators, metabolites, proteins and gene activity on the cellular and subcellular level in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana to better understand the complex interplay between these components during later root initiation.

Petra Marhava, who is currently working as researcher affiliated with Stéphanie Robert’s group at SLU, is also working with Arabidopsis thaliana roots but wants to understand how cold or heat stress affects the transport of auxin, a plant growth regulator involved in root formation. High or low temperatures change the physical properties of the cell membrane and Petra Marhava wants to see with the help of advanced imaging techniques how these physical changes influence auxin transport components that are integrated in the cell membrane. A second part of the project focuses on identifying those genes that are activated during temperature stress and that coordinate auxin transport in different root cells.

The project from Ewa Mellerowicz, who is professor at the Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology at SLU, is based on a recent finding that she and her group made. They found so far unnoticed lipidic compounds in the cell walls of wood and want now to characterize these compounds further. They want to investigate which role these compounds play in the wood cell walls, how they are synthesized and to develop methods to efficiently extract them. Their hope is that this knowledge will help to reduce damages to the machinery in biorefineries that are caused by such lipidic compounds but also develop new products derived from wood like for example natural waxes or environmentally friendly packaging.

The applied project that was granted by Formas, the Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development, comprises several partners from industry and academia and is designed in partnership with the municipality in Boden, in Northern Sweden. The goal is to improve energy fluxes in a large-scale symbiosis project, called the Boden Symbiosis Cluster, by using artificial intelligence. Energy, in form of heat and low-heat waters, that is released from server halls and other local industries shall be channelled into an aqua-agro farming system to establish a sustainable food production site.

Olivier Keech, associate professor at the Department of Plant Physiology at Umeå University, will focus on the plant components of the project while his colleagues from Luleå University of Technology (LTU) and Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences will concentrate more on microbial and animal production systems. Together with the division of Machine Learning at LTU, they will integrate the different energy flows using artificial intelligence to improve sustainability and cost-efficiency. They hope to create an urban food competence platform of commercial size that can be used for implementing and testing innovative solutions for future food production systems.


The four projects approved by the Swedish Research Council within Natural and Engineering Sciences:

How do trees survive winter?

Stefan Jansson
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.
https://www.upsc.se/stefan_jansson

Cell type and organelle specificity in cytokinin and auxin signalling and metabolism during Arabidopsis lateral root initiation

Karin Ljung
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.
https://www.upsc.se/karin_ljung

How plants deal with heat and cold: molecular mechanism of auxin transport in response to temperature stress

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.

Wood suberin? Unravelling biosynthesis and chemical structure of wood lipophilic compounds

Ewa Mellerowicz
Umeå Plant Science Centre
Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology
Umeå University
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
https://www.upsc.se/ewa_mellerowicz

The Formas project in the call on “From research to implementation for a sustainable society”

AI for improved efficiency and sustainability of closed land-based integrated food production Systems – a case study in Boden project – iCFPS (intelligent Circular Food production Systems)

Olivier Keech
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.
https://www.upsc.se/olivier_keech

Anne Bünder on the right side with her PhD thesis in her hand and her supervisor Totte Niittylä on the left side after Anne's defence
Anne Bünder on the right side with her PhD thesis in her hand and her supervisor Totte Niittylä on the left side after Anne's defenceAnne Bünder (right) together with her supervisor Totte Niittylä (left) after the defence (Photo: Anne Honsel)

Nanocellulose forms the basis of many novel materials and is used already now for a wide range of different applications. Anne Bünder, PhD student in Totte Niittylä’s group, investigated how wood properties influence the extraction of nanocellulose from wood material. She showed that modification of cellulose and the amount of lignin influence the efficiency of the nanocellulose extraction. Anne Bünder has defended her PhD thesis at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences on Friday, 29th of October 2021.

Different raw material resources have been already tested for nanocellulose production but not much was known about how the chemical composition of the wood source affects the yield and final properties of nanocellulose. In close collaboration with material scientists from Luleå University of Technology, Anne Bünder examined in her PhD how modified chemical structures of wood influence the efficiency of nanocellulose production. She used material from genetically modified hybrid aspen trees in which the cellulose synthesis is impaired and from trees that have naturally different composition of the three main components of wood - cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin.

The modified trees were mechanically weaker

“We used hybrid aspen trees in which a protein that is involved in cellulose biosynthesis is genetically reduced. This protein makes sure that the cellulose fibres are aligned correctly in the primary cell wall, but it is not clear if it also plays a role for secondary cell walls,” explains Anne Bünder. “We saw that the wood of these modified trees is mechanically weaker, but we could not see any changes in wood anatomy. Also the cell wall structure in the secondary cell wall, which contributes most to the mechanical performance of wood, was not changed. So, we were wondering if this protein is really needed for a proper alignment of cellulose in the secondary cell walls.”

In wood, cell walls consist of different layers. The outer layer is the primary cell wall which is much thinner and more flexible than the more rigid secondary cell wall that consist of three layers. In each cell wall layer, cellulose macrofibrils are aligned together with hemicellulose, lignin and proteins in a specific pattern that provides mechanical strength and also flexibility. Long glucose chains are the building blocks of cellulose microfibrils which bundle together to cellulose macrofibrils.

Cell wall features of the trees affect nanocellulose properties

When the researchers searched further for explanations for the mechanical weakness, they noticed that the cellulose chains in the modified trees were shorter, and this also affected the properties of cellulose nanofibrils. This fibrous form of nanocellulose is obtained when cellulose microfibrils from wood material are mechanically disrupted during nanocellulose extraction. Different methods are used to extract nanocellulose from wood material and the properties of the resulting nanocellulose depend on the used method.

“When we used wood material from those trees to isolate nanofibrils, we ended up with a lower amount of fine nanofibrils and we think that this is related to the structural differences of the cell wall,” says Anne Bünder. “We also saw that the isolated cellulose nanofibrils were shorter like the cellulose in the cell wall. This demonstrates that also cell wall properties and cellulose structure of the wood material used to manufacture nanofibrils are influencing the efficiency of the nanocellulose production process and also the final properties.”

Lignin might facilitate nanocellulose extraction from wood

In a next step, the researchers wanted to see if also other wood components affect the nanocellulose production. They used wood from field grown hybrid aspen trees that contained different amounts of lignin and they also used a naturally occurring phenomenon to induce changes in the wood composition. When trees that are bend down grow, they produce wood with more cellulose, longer cellulose chains and less hemicellulose and lignin on the outer side of the bending. The researchers used such wood material to produce nanofibrils and assumed that the higher amount of cellulose and a lower amount of lignin will make the isolation of nanofibrils easier. However, the opposite was the case.

“Cellulose is the component of interest for industry, and the common opinion is that a lot of lignin is making cellulose less accessible. Our results put lignin into a completely new light,” explains Anne Bünder. “Our hypothesis is that the cell wall becomes more porous when lignin is removed which is one of the first steps in nanocellulose production. The more lignin in the cell wall, the more porous the cell wall gets when it is removed making cellulose better accessible in further treatments.”

The researchers think that these results open up new opportunities for tree breeding programs. So far, the focus was set on reducing lignin or changing its structure in the wood to make cellulose better accessible for extraction, but this was often on expense of tree health and viability. The new findings illustrate that lignin might not be such a big problem for nanocellulose extraction as thought so far. They also show that a better understanding of the composition of wood can help to improve the isolation and also the performance of nanocellulose extracted from this material.

Scale guide from wood to nanocellulose displaying a tree on the left followed by a wood fibre cell which is in 1-50micrometer range, a cell with the cell wall and cellulose microfibrils within the cell wall which are abotu 3nm thick and on the right site cellulose nanofibrils and cellulose nanocrystals that consitst of glucan chains From wood to nanocellulose: a scale guide (figure created by Anne Bünder with BioRender.com)
What is nanocellulose?
Nanocellulose is the collective term for cellulose nanocrystals and cellulose nanofibrils. It can be extracted from different cellulose sources including wood, crops, algae but also cellulose synthesizing bacteria. Its mechanical and thermal properties and its low weight make it very attractive for material scientists, and the number of applications is constantly increasing. Nanocellulose is already now used for example in packaging, absorbents, food additives and hygiene products but also for biomedical and electronic devices, filter systems and different forms of composites.

About the public defence:

Anne Bünder, Umeå Plant Science Centre, Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, has defended her PhD thesis on Friday, 29th of October 2021. Faculty opponent will be Ingo Burgert, Institute for Building Materials, ETH Zurich, Switzerland. The thesis was supervised by Totte Niittylä. The dissertation was live broadcasted via Zoom.

Title of the thesis: The biology and properties of wood for nanocellulose production

Link to the thesis: https://pub.epsilon.slu.se/25573/


For more information, please contact:

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

Emmanuelle Charpentier, Director, Department of Regulation in Infection Biology, Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology, and Honorary Professor at Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany Visiting Professor and Honorary Doctor at Umeå University Sweden
Emmanuelle Charpentier, Director, Department of Regulation in Infection Biology, Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology, and Honorary Professor at Humboldt University, Berlin, GermanyVisiting Professor at Umeå University SwedenEmmanuelle Charpentier, Nobel laureate and mentor of the new 'Excellence by Choice' Postdoctoral Programme (photo: Hallbauer&Fioretti)

Umeå University is establishing a postdoctoral programme in Life Science research to attract prominent young researchers and stimulate cutting-edge research. Umeå Centre for Microbial Research (UCMR) is managing the programme in collaboration with UPSC and other research centres. The mentor for the new programme will be Nobel laureate Emmanuelle Charpentier, who was affiliated with The Laboratory for Molecular Infection Medicine Sweden (MIMS) and UCMR and discovered the ground-breaking CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology during her time in Umeå.

The aim of the new programme ‘Excellence by Choice’ Postdoctoral Programme (EC Postdoctoral Programme) is to strengthen world-class research activities in Umeå and attract excellent young researchers. UCMR and UPSC, the two national Centres of Excellence, are launching the life science programme in collaboration with other research centres. 17 new postdoctoral researchers will be recruited to Umeå over a five-year period. The objective is to train next-generation scientists and encourage new synergies and collaborations to strengthen life science research in Umeå.

“We are very grateful to Emmanuelle Charpentier who serves as the patron and mentor of the programme. She was one of the first MIMS group leaders and was active within UCMR when she was working in Umeå. We were very proud of her when she received the Nobel Prize in 2020,” says Yaowen Wu, director of UCMR. “Her role model is inspiring us a lot in our research and will inspire more next-generation scientists in the future.”

The two national Centres of Excellence in Umeå, UCMR and UPSC, have joined their forces to attract funding for this new programme. The research focus will be on molecular and translational life science research with the goal to enhance international competitiveness. The postdoctoral researchers will receive a two-year fellowship and additional funding for project running costs as well as for their career development. This individual support will be complemented with jointly organised programme activities to extend the networking and collaboration possibilities for the young researchers.

“Postdoctoral researchers are an important part of the research landscape in Sweden, and we aim to strengthen their competence by providing them with good work conditions”, emphasizes Ove Nilsson, director of UPSC. “It might look on the first hand that UCMR and UPSC do not have much overlap research-wise, but we believe that our collaboration creates new and innovative synergies that will be beneficial not only for the involved postdoctoral researchers but for all our researchers.”

The new Excellence by Choice programme is largely financed with donations from the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation and the Kempe Foundations, as well as with direct funding from Umeå University and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU). It is managed by UCMR and based on the format of a previous programme that was established at MIMS. The former programme started in 2015 and provided already several young researchers the opportunity to conduct postdoctoral research at Umeå University.

The programme has opened a call for postdoctoral projects to Principal Investigators:
Read more about the open call and the postdoctoral programme on the UCMR homepage

Link to the Swedish news on the Umeå University homepage

 

For more information, please contact:

Yaowen Wu
Umeå Centre for Microbial Research
Department of Chemistry
Umeå University
Phone: + 46 (0)90 786 5531
e-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
https://www.umu.se/en/staff/yaowen-wu/

Ove Nilsson
Umeå Plant Science Centre
Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
Phone: +46 (0)90 786 8487
e-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
https://www.upsc.se/ove_nilsson 

Text: Ola Nilsson, Anne Honsel

Judith Lundberg-Felten presenting her research at the Researcher's Night Stand-up Comedy
Judith Lundberg-Felten presenting her research at the Researcher's Night Stand-up ComedyJudith Lundberg-Felten presenting her research at the Researcher's Night Stand-up Comedy (photo: Gabriella Beans Picón)

How funny can science be? Judith Lundberg-Felten and four other scientists showed their comedy skills in the first science-themed stand-up comedy show in Umeå and entertained the audience with stories from their life as a researcher. The event was arranged, as part of the Researchers Night at Curiosum, Umeå’s science centre, and took place on the last Saturday in September.

Can the relationship between tree roots and fungi teach you how to date online? What do design anthropologists learn from being followed by a masked man? Can you explain the evolution of complexity with your family’s history? What can you learn from guerrilla gardening about “transdisciplinary” design, and can snails help you to cope with stress? Using daily life stories, the five scientists comically explained their research in eight minutes and made the audience laugh.

“It was a lot of fun and exciting to be part of Researchers’ Friday Stand up," says Judith Lundberg-Felten, group leader at UPSC. "It is a new way to talk about my research and rewarding to experience how positively the event was received by the audience. Such events are an excellent opportunity for me as a researcher to continue building a trustful relationship with society."

"We attracted especially young adults to this event, a group that we have previously not reached with other outreach formats," continues she. "I want to encourage also other people working in science, irrespective of position or age, to participate in such events. It’s an inspiring experience for the presenter and a fantastic way to keep fostering our interaction with people that may eventually become the decision-makers of tomorrow.”

The overall goal of the Researchers’ Night is to bring research closer to the public and show that researchers are just ordinary people even though their jobs might be extraordinary. The concept for the stand-up comedy derived from the comedy club Bright Club from St Andrews University in Scotland. The organizers from Curiosum worked close together with the people from Bright Club and offered an online workshop on comedy stand-up to the researchers followed by repeated rehearsals. The show on the 25th of September was moderated by comedian Monica Lindgren.

The full Stand-up comedy show was recorded, and you can still watch it on YouTube:

Researcher’s Night Stand-up Comedy in Umeå

More about the Stand-up comedy event at Curiosum and interviews with all five participants:

https://www.curiosum.umu.se/en/discover/aktuella-evenemang/past-events/forskarfredag-2021/standup/
https://www.umu.se/nyheter/stauppkomedi-gor-forskning-roligare_10945335/ (in Swedish)

More about the Researchers Night:

https://www.curiosum.umu.se/upptack/aktuella-evenemang/sparade-evenemang/forskarfredag-2021/ (in Swedish)
https://forskarfredag.se/researchers-night/

More about Judith Lundberg-Felten's research