[2016-09-23] PNAS has published this week at the same time three articles that focus on one enzyme, the dioxygenase for auxin oxidation 1 (DAO1). This enzyme catalyses the oxidation and thereby inactivation of auxin, a plant hormone important for the regulation of plant growth and development. Researchers from Umeå Plant Science Centre contributed to two of these articles while the third is published by a separate research group.

The plant hormone auxin is very crucial for regulating plant growth and development. The shape of the plant as well as the function of tissues and cells is controlled by auxin. It acts on cell division, elongation and differentiation and directs like this for example the growth of a plant towards the light. The spatial distribution of auxin within the plant is very inhomogeneous to allow this directed growth. It is regulated by complex interactions between different pathways for auxin transport, signalling and metabolism.

Three mechanisms control auxin metabolism: auxin biosynthesis, degradation and conjugation, i.e. the binding of auxin to amino acids or sugars. Enzymes involved in biosynthesis and conjugation of auxin are already well characterised but little was known about the enzyme which catalyses the degradation of auxin by oxidation. The three PNAS articles show for the first time that DAO1 (dioxygenase for auxin oxidation 1) is the functional auxin oxidising enzyme in Arabidopsis and they provide altogether a very detailed characterisation of this enzyme.

Ljung KarinPhoto: Mattias Pettersson
The team around Karin Ljung from the Umeå Plant Science Centre (UPSC) could show that mutants with reduced DAO1 activity have increased levels of auxin conjugates. These conjugates are considered to be storage forms of auxin with low biological activity. The researchers concluded that the missing function of DAO1 for inactivating auxin is compensated by an increased activity of auxin conjugating enzymes. This is important for keeping the auxin homeostasis balanced.

The groups of Markus Owen and Malcolm Bennett from Nottingham University chose a systems biology approach. They developed in cooperation with Karin Ljung’s group a mathematical model of auxin metabolic pathways based on experimental data. The researchers predicted with the help of their model that the auxin concentration in the DAO1 mutant is elevated in a special zone in the root tip. The root hairs in this mutant were longer than normal and the prediction gave the explanation for these findings.

This summer, Stefan Jansson has grown (probably for the first time) gene-edited cabbage plants in his garden. Together with the journalist Gustaf Klarin from Radio Sweden, he has harvested and lunched the plants that were modified using the “genetic scissors” CRISPR-Cas9. This news motivated even the prestigious journal Science to write a news message about it.

Since several years, Stefan Jansson, professor at the Umeå Plant CRISPR middag Bild 17 IG WebbScience Centre (UPSC) and at Umeå University, is very active in discussing questions about GMO (genetically modified organisms). The recent development of gene editing methods like CRISPR-Cas9 breathed new life into this GMO discussion.  

CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)-Cas9 allows either to exchange one part of a gene by another DNA fragment or to cut a segment out. The cabbage plant grown this summer in Stefan’s garden was modified in the latter way, i.e. a segment of the DNA was removed but no “foreign DNA” introduced.  

The Swedish Board of Agriculture decided in November 2015 that plants modified with this new technique by which defined parts of the DNA are cut out of the genome are not considered to fall under the GMO-legislation. This decision allowed Stefan Jansson to grow the modified cabbage plants legally in his garden. He has blogged about his unique summer gardening experiences in the “Forskarbloggen” at Umeå University. 

[2016-08-26] The UPSC PhD and Postdoc Retreat 2016 took place last week in Skeppsvik Herrgård, close to Umeå. During two days the PhD students and Postdocs discussed their research, learned about advanced scientific techniques and had some career training. The feedback was overall very positive and the interest is high to make it to an annually repeating event. 

One intention for initiating a UPSC PhD and Postdoc Retreat was to offer training related to career development. The emphasis this year was on exercising the job interview situation. HR officer and job coach Maria Rönnholm discussed with the participants what is important before, during and after a job interview and she simulated a job interview situation. 

UPSC Retreat2016 smallPhoto: Anne Honsel The other main focus of this year’s retreat was to strengthen the PhD and Postdoc network within the UPSC. The organisers created a program that consisted not only of scientific sessions but also included team building activities and some free time for social activities and discussions. About 35 people participated and their responses were throughout positive: “It was a really good mix of technical, scientific and career training and fun”, as one of the participants summarised the two exciting days. 

The first day started with the presentation of the individual research projects. Every participant got two minutes’ time to explain his/her project to the others using a hand-drawn poster. “Many of us were first very sceptical when we heard what we were supposed to do”, said another participant. “But then it turned out to be really interesting and the time passed by very fast.”

Totte Niittylä, Associate Professor at the Umeå Plant Science Centre, has received a 5-year grant with a budget of little over 10 million SEK from the Swedish Research Council Formas. His project ‘Nanowood’ is an interdisciplinary project in collaboration with Kristiina Oksman from Luleå University of Technology (LTU).

‘Nanowood’ combines basic wood biology and material science. The aim of the project is to find and optimize the best Swedish wood source for nanocellulose production. The focus is set on spruce as the most important tree for the Swedish forest industry and on hybrid aspen because of its potential in Swedish plantation forestry.

Currently one of the biggest challenges in nanocellulose production is related to the efficient separation of cellulose fibrils from the raw material. Although different raw material resources for fibrillation have been investigated there is very limited knowledge on how the chemical composition of wood is affecting the yield and final nanocellulose properties. 

Totte Niittyla“We aim to identify genetic factors influencing the preparation and properties of nanocellulose,” says Totte Niittylä. “The possibility of using modern tree breeding tools to improve the suitability of wood for nanocellulose production is completely unexplored. It is great that with funding of ‘Nanowood’ we can now start to fill this gap.”

Cellulose nanocrystals are the smallest constituents of wood fibres. They build up nanofibers which are bundled to cellulose microfibrils that in turn form the wood fibres. Cellulose nanofibers and crystals have excellent mechanical and thermal properties and low weight compared to other nanoparticles, and they are environmentally friendly. They can be used as a functional additive or reinforcement in different composite polymers, and as absorbent or membrane for water cleaning to name some interesting possibilities.

Tree structure
From left to right: Tree trunk, wood fibre walls, purified cellulose microfibrils, cellulose nanofibers and cellulose nanocrystals.
Figure: Kristiina Oksman

[2016-06-08] VINNOVA, Sweden’s Innovation Agency, has decided to continue funding the activities of the UPSC Berzelii Centre for Forest Biotechnology for five more years (2017-2021). The UPSC Berzelii Centre becomes now a new VINNOVA Competence Centre and will be one of five existing Centres of Competence in Sweden that receive this funding.

VINNOVA aims with its Centre of Competence program to create active networks between universities, research institutes, companies and other public research organizations. The focus is set on research areas that are significant for Sweden’s competitive strengths on the national and international level. In a directed call against existing Competence Centres, VINNOVA has decided to grant the most successful Centres a five-year continuation.
berzelii new
The Umeå Plant Science Centre (UPSC) is hosting the current Berzelii Centre for Forest Biotechnology that is funded by the Swedish Research Council (VR) and VINNOVA from 2007 till 2016. Research groups from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) and Umeå University are collaborating with seven industrial partners on performing and translating excellent basic research to applications within the Swedish forest industry.

The performance of the Centre was recently evaluated together with 19 other Berzelii and VINNEX Centres and was found to be “Exceptional” among these Centres. In this new call the UPSC centre competed with those 19 and other previous VINNOVA centres and was found to be one of five Centres deserving continuing support.

“These are great news for us” says Ove Nilsson, director of the current UPSC Berzelii Centre and the new UPSC Centre for Forest Biotechnology. “The new approval allows us not only to continue and develop our academic/industrial research projects, but also confirms that what we are doing and the way we are doing it is successful”.

Stefan Jansson was one of the speakers at the third TEDxUmeå meeting at the 11th of Mayplanta3 webb 2016. You can now watch his talk with the title “To be or not be a GMO, that is the question” under the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyrsNa1jLpo.   

Stefan is explaining in his talk why plants modified using the new gene editing methods like CRIPSR-Cas9 do not fit into the original definition for a genetically modified organism (GMO). By using a basket filled with vegetables, fruits and an Arabidopsis plant he is comparing traditional and advanced breeding technologies and points out the problematic nature that the legislation has to face now with the new gene editing methods.

The motto of TEDxUmeå2016 was “challenging the norm” and should reflect also Umeå as a “young and progressive university city”. The invited speakers were artists, scientists and thinkers who were supposed to present “norm-breaking” ideas or new views on certain topics. The size of the whole event was increased this year up to 400 participants. 

TEDx events are non-profit events based on TED conferences which have the motto “Ideas Worth Spreading”. They are - in contrast to TED conferences - local and self-organized independently from TED. TEDxUmeå is financed by several sponsors and supported among others by Umeå University as partner.

[2016-05-26] Stefan Jansson, a professor at Umeå University has been appointed 2015 Forest Biotechnologist of the Year by the Institute of Forest Biosciences (IFB). IFB is an international organisation working towards healthier and more productive forests.

Stefan JanssonStefan Jansson was born 1959 and comes from Sveg in Härjedalen. He is a leading scientist in the field of Plant Physiology at Umeå Plant Science Centre (UPSC) – a centre for experimental plant research.

Stefan Jansson is the seventh scientist, and the first Swede, to win this award.
“It feels great to be given this award!”, says Stefan Jansson, Professor at Umeå Plant Science Centre (UPSC) at the Department of Plant Physiology at Umeå University.

Stefan Jansson was nominated because of his ground-breaking work on the use of gene editing tools (CRISPR) in plants that pushes the boundaries of forest biosciences while forcing much needed dialogue around the classification of what constitutes a genetically modified (GM) plant in Europe and around the world.

Michele Garfinkel, Vice Chair of the Institute of Forest Biosciences Board (IFB), notes, “Dr. Jansson is an excellent choice for Forest Biotechnologist of the Year. He works in a dynamic area of research using an important emerging technology that allows for extremely rapid advancements in understanding and application of knowledge in genomics and related areas. His further contributions to public audiences and to the scientific community have been invaluable.”

Stefan Jansson’s scientific career has been highlighted by several foundational efforts in forest biotechnology. He was involved in the sequencing of the first tree genome (Populus) and has been leading the work to sequence the first conifer genome (Norway spruce). His group has developed tools and databases used widely by the forest genomics and biotechnology community, and he is responsible for a large fraction of the field experiments with transgenic trees in Europe. He is vice-director of the world-leading UPSC Berzelii Centre of Forest Biotechnology, is a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (KVA) and has published over 120 scientific articles.

Full text: www.teknat.umu.se/

Text: Adam Costanza
The “European Molecular Biology Organization“ (EMBO) announced today the election of 58 new EMBO Members. Ove Nilsson, director at Umeå Plant Science Centre (UPSC) and SLU in Umeå, is one of the researchers that are recognized with their election for their achievements in life science.

Once a year the EMBO council elects outstanding scientists to receive the EMBO Membership. This year 50 new Members from Europe and 8 Associated Members from China, Japan, Lithuania, Singapore and the United States were chosen. They are now part of a network that has the goal to promote the European research environment.

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Ove Nilsson focuses in his research on two main questions: how do plants control the time when they are flowering and how do perennial plants control their growth during the different seasons of the year. He is funded as Wallenberg scholar by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation that supports only the most successful researches at Swedish Universities.

He is also the director of the UPSC Berzelii Centre for Forest Biotechnology, a centre of excellence funded by the Swedish Research Council and VINNOVA. The vision of this Centre is to promote an environment where cutting-edge research and Swedish forest industry can interact easily and efficiently with each other.

EMBO Members are involved in all activities EMBO is organizing e.g. courses, workshops and conferences. The organisation also provides financial support for research projects and it influences actively science policy with its “Science Policy Programme”. Moreover, EMBO publishes four scientific journals to which EMBO Members have free access to.  

The EMBO organisation was founded in 1964 on recommendation of the two British biologists John Kendrew and Conrad Waddington. They wanted to intensify the collaboration between European molecular biologists. Today, more than 1700 excellent scientists are elected EMBO Members.

View the EMBO press release containing the full list of new EMBO Members: EMBO press release
Peter SylwanPhoto: Birgitta DahlinPeter Sylwan, science journalist and author of several (popular scientific) books, will join the UPSC Days 2016.
His interest is to make science popular and he is writing a lot about the relationship between science and human society. During the UPSC Days 2016 he will talk about “Life at stake – On science, bioscience and society”.
Peter Sylwan has worked among others for radio, TV and newspapers, for the Institute of Futures Studies and as adjunct professor for communication at the University of Lund. Originally, he has studied to become an agronomist but worked throughout his entire career as journalist and writer.

The UPSC Days 2016 will take place at the 30th and 31st of May 2016 at Skogshögskolan (SLU, Umeå).

Preliminary program and registration

Deadline for registration: 23rd of May.

Location: P.O. Bäckström salen and Åteln, Sveriges lantbruksuniversitet (SLU) in Umeå
How to find the place (map)
Vaughan Hurry and Karin Ljung were inaugurated as new professors at SLU Umeå

On Friday the 13th of May Vaughan Hurry and Karin Ljung were officially inaugurated as new professor at SLU. As part of the inauguration ceremony they gave a popular science talk about their research.

Vaughan Hurry portrait
Vaughan Hurry has talked about how plants sense environmental signals and how their primary metabolism is adjusted to fluctuations in growth temperature. 
For more information: Vaughan Hurry

Ljung Karin portraitKarin Ljung, one of the two new prefects of the UPSC, presented her research about how plant hormones influence root development and which role these hormones play to coordinate above and below ground growth of plants.
For more information: Karin Ljung