[2016-10-05] The Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation grants two research projects from the Umeå Plant Science Centre with together SEK 76 million. One project focuses on understanding how plants control the time to flower in changing environmental conditions, while the other aims to identify key genes controlling tree growth and environmental adaption. 

The project “Epigenetic and Metabolic Control of Flowering Time” is led by Markus Schmid, since 2015 professor at Umeå University and the Umeå Plant Science Centre (UPSC). He will receive, together with his co-applicants Johannes Hanson, Ove Nilsson and Karin Ljung, SEK 28 million. The project leader of the project “UPSC Forest Biology and Biotechnology” is Ove Nilsson, director of the UPSC and professor at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU). This project involves 40 research groups from the UPSC and will be funded with SEK 48 million.

187238 schmid markus 7682 150904 mpn originalPhoto: Mattias PetterssonMarkus Schmid focuses in his research on how plants control their flowering time. The induction of flowering is a central event in the life cycle of plants. Only when plants flower at the right time their reproduction, and therefore their survival, is ensured. The underlying regulatory mechanisms are very complex including regulation on epigenetic (i.e. the modification of the genome without changing the DNA sequence), genetic, hormonal and metabolic levels. 
“The decision if a plant starts to flower is made in a very small subset of cells”, explains Markus Schmid. “Within this project, we will isolate those specific cells and analyse the molecular mechanisms that control the induction of flowering. This will help us to predict the ecological consequences of future climate changes and to select plant varieties that are well adapted to their particular environment.” 

The basis of the second project is the long standing expertise OveNilssonPhoto: Anne Honselof the UPSC in a broad range of plant biology related research areas. “This is a large joint project from the UPSC and we are very delighted that we received the funding,” says Ove Nilsson. “We will develop a large scale gene-mining program based on data that we have been collecting at the UPSC for more than 20 years. Our aim is to identify key regulators of tree growth and wood development.”

A central point of the project will be the establishment of a tree phenotyping platform. This platform will be part of a new greenhouse that will be built at the UPSC. It will allow to continuously monitor the growth and development of trees under highly standardized conditions. Trees in which the identified key genes are modified will be analysed in order to understand how they control tree growth, climate adaptation and wood properties. The most promising candidates will be further studied in field trials.

[2016-09-29] Humans adjust to weather changes by changing their clothes or changing their location. Plants have developed other strategies to adapt to a changing environment. Louise Norén Lindbäck from Umeå Plant Science Centre has detected new ways how plants sense changes in their environment and how they communicate these changes within the plant cell. She will defend her findings on the 6th of October. 

Louise Norén LindbäckPhoto: Carole DubreuilLouise Norén Lindbäck has identified a new mechanism that is controlled by signaling molecules of the chlorophyll biosynthesis. These molecules are called tetrapyrroles. They can activate a signal transmitted from the chloroplast, the place where chlorophyll is synthesized in the cell and photosynthesis takes place, to the nucleus. This signal from the chloroplast informs the nucleus about which genes need to be turned on or off to adapt the cell machinery to changes in the environment.

”This new signaling pathway is important both under normal conditions for fine-tuning the protein synthesis during the day as well as under extreme conditions to protect the plant against for instance too much light”, says Louise Norén Lindbäck. ”We humans can go inside or take on/off our clothes to adapt to changes of the weather. Plants do it by producing special proteins that can help to protect their cells against excessive sunlight”.

The chloroplast is talking constantly with the nucleus of the cell but this is not a one-way communication. Signals go back and forth all the time. Like this the two cell compartments discuss which proteins are needed when and where to adapt best to changes in the environment. The sunlight is a key factor in this communication. It does not only deliver the energy which is driving photosynthesis. The sunlight informs the plant also about e.g. the time of the day or the season of the year.

[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