Parasitic disease researcher wins a coveted ERC Starting Grant worth EUR 1.5 million

The European Research Council has awarded an ERC Starting Independent Researcher Grant to Anna-Liisa Laine, who works as a group leader at the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Metapopulation Research. The five-year grant totals EUR 1.5 million.

The European Research Council has awarded an ERC Starting Independent Researcher Grant to Anna-Liisa Laine, who works as a group leader at the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Metapopulation Research. The five-year grant totals EUR 1.5 million.

Academy Research Fellow Anna-Liisa Laine and her team study the complex relationship between the ribwort plantain Plantago lanceolata and the powdery mildew Podosphaera plantaginis in the meadows of the Åland Islands. The powdery mildew infects the ribwort plantain, sucking nutrients from its cells. The two form a natural model system that explains the behaviour of plant diseases on a wider scale. The research results shed light on the reasons behind plant diseases and the variation in their infection ability.

A unique database

In her research, Laine exploits the same network of meadows that Academy Professor Ilkka Hanski used in his famous metapopulation studies on the Glanville Fritillary. The ribwort plantain, which is the only host plant for the powdery mildew, is also the primary food plant for the caterpillars of the Glanville Fritillary.

The 4,000-plus known ribwort plantain populations in the Åland Islands have now been examined for occurrences of the powdery mildew. Accumulated over a period of ten years, this data constitutes a unique database, even globally.

The Åland Islands offer an opportunity to study the evolutionary processes of diseases in natural conditions. The results from laboratory studies in Viikki during the winter are tested in the field during the growth season.

Farming is likely to benefit from the results

In the long term, farming in particular may benefit from the research into the factors affecting the evolution of diseases. The research project has produced models for predicting the occurrence of diseases. These models can be adapted to measure economically significant plant diseases.

– Chemical pesticide sprayings are partly random, because the real disease risks remain unknown. Reliable predictions of the time and place of disease risks would enable a considerable decrease in pesticide use, says Laine.

Laine and her team are also developing methods that make it easier to study parasitic fungi. Successful cryo freezing, for example, keeps the spores viable for a long time.

Last spring, the researchers in the project examined overwintered powdered mildew for the first time. The purpose was to identify the factors affecting the wintering of mildew. This information may shed new light on the wintering of disease populations in general as to date this has not been studied much.

– Winter ecology is regulated by entirely different factors than successful growth seasons, Laine says.

Academy Research Fellow Anna-Liisa Laine’s homepage »»

Finnish Centre of Excellence in Metapopulation Research »»

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Text: Kirsikka Mattila
Photo: Susanna Kekkonen
9.8.2011
Translation: AAC Global
University of Helsinki, digital communications


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