Mäkelä and Mikkonen both receive Ascending Investigator Grants from Novo Nordisk Foundation

Academy Fellow Miia Mäkelä and Associate Professor Kirsi Mikkonen have both secured the highly competed Ascending Investigator Grants from Novo Nordisk Foundation collecting a total of 20 million DKK (2.7M€).

Miia Mäkelä and Kirsi Mikkonen both reside in the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry in the Departments of ‘Microbiology’ and ‘Food and Nutrition’, at the University of Helsinki.

The Novo Nordisk Foundation’s Research Leader Programme that includes the Ascending Investigator grant aims to give talented researchers the opportunity to investigate hypotheses with great potential and to develop new techniques and methods. These five year projects will allow for further expansion of their research groups and strongly support their ambition to recruit talented international scientists to Finland.

Fungal cell factories would have an impact on society

Mäkelä’s project, The dual role of sugar transporters in plant biomass conversion by fungi to improve microbial cell factories (MYCOFACT) builds upon her ongoing research on fungal regulatory systems related to the control of plant biomass degradation.

“Filamentous fungi have a huge impact on society due to their instrumental role in the development of the resource wise, sustainable economy, since fungi and their enzymes and metabolites are prominent in several different fields of biotechnology,” says Mäkelä.

They are the main plant biomass converting microorganisms in nature. Four key factors in fungal conversion of plant biomass are extracellular enzymatic degradation of biomass, uptake of the released sugars, intracellular catabolism of these sugars, and its regulatory system. In contrast to extensive studies in the other three aspects, sugar transport has been barely touched, largely due to previous technical limitations.

MYCOFACT is highly timely, as recent developments in omics and genome editing technology now enable in-depth studies of this complex biological process. In particular, this removes the previous barriers of dealing with the many candidate sugar transporters in a single fungal species and the functional redundancy that likely exists. Mäkelä aims to not only classify the influence of sugar transport on plant biomass conversion in filamentous fungi, but to also provide a novel approach to improve fungal cell factories through combined manipulation of sugar transport and regulatory systems.

Reducing vegetable wastage by extending their shelf-life

Mikkonen’s project, Revealing mechanisms of post processing senescence to secure the supply of high-quality vegetables for the planetary diet (VegeSense) builds upon her work in the reduction of food wastage, by extending the shelf life of fresh food, through packaging.

“Rapidly urbanizing society has increased the need for fresh and nutritious vegetables of high quality and extended shelf-life. Currently, up to 50% of produced vegetables are discarded before being consumed, which burdens the environment and increases CO2 emissions unnecessarily. The financial losses caused by this wastage in Europe and the US total around €200 billion annually,” says Mikkonen.

Mikkonen aims to reduce vegetable wastage, by extending their shelf-life, which would lead to a decrease in price and an increase in their consumption. The main reasons for vegetable waste are over-ripening, browning, and tissue degradation. Despite their major importance, the detailed mechanisms of vegetable deterioration after processing and packaging are poorly understood. The VegeSense project will identify the key metabolites involved in this process, giving a greater understanding of these mechanisms leading to vegetable quality deterioration. This will enable the advancement of packaging technologies to extend vegetable shelf-life.

Mikkonen and Mäkelä both look to increase sustainability, whether it be within food systems or the development of fungal cell factories. These projects will both progress the circular bioeconomy driven aspirations within Finland and support technological development across the globe.

Further information on the web: 

About the Novo Nordisk Foundation

The Novo Nordisk Foundation is an independent Danish foundation with corporate interests. It has two objectives: 1) to provide a stable basis for the commercial and research activities of the companies in the Novo Group; and 2) to support scientific, humanitarian and social causes.

The vision of the Foundation is to contribute significantly to research and development that improves the lives of people and the sustainability of society. Read more at www.novonordiskfonden.dk/en.