Ville Friman appointed as a professor of microbiology at the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry

Professor Ville Friman, who assumed the position in the beginning of August, investigates microbial ecology and evolution in human and plant microbiomes.

Professor of Environmental Microbiology Ville Friman took up his position at the Department of Microbiology, Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry on 1 August.

What are your research topics?

Together with my research group, we investigate the evolution and ecology (interactions) of microbial communities in the laboratory and in various natural communities from the root systems of plants to polluted soils and bacterial infections in humans. Our primary goal is to demonstrate, and potentially predict, how microbial evolution affects the functioning of ecosystems. From the perspective of applied science, we try to understand, among other things, how antibiotic resistance develops in microbial communities, how evolution affects the infectivity of plant pathogens, or how positive interactions develop between bacteria and plants. We also study viruses that infect bacteria, or phages, which can potentially be used to control antibiotic-resistant bacteria or plant pathogens.

Where and how does the topic of your research have an impact?

Most of my group’s research is what is known as basic research, which can also potentially benefit agriculture and medicine. We are collaborating with several businesses and currently developing ways to store phages in powder form or as tablets that could later be mixed with irrigation water or added directly to hydroponic cultivation systems to control bacterial pathogens. We are also investigating the potential of phages in treating antibiotic-resistant infections in collaboration with Belgian, Georgian and Danish researchers. Comprehensive biological understanding from the level of genes to interaction between individuals is the basis for the functioning of such applications.

What is inspiring in your field right now?

On a very regular basis, I get the feeling that our current understanding of biology is only a small tip of the iceberg. For instance, the existence of a bacterium more than 1 centimetre in length was recently reported, which was thought to be impossible due to physical constraints and the absence of cell organelles. Our understanding of biology is constantly growing, also in part reshaping and replacing old notions. It is inspiring to live in this time in the middle of this development.

What are your previous research topics?

I explored bacterial evolution already in my doctoral thesis, before which I wrote my bachelor’s thesis on the warning colouration of insects in University of Jyväskylä. At the time, I also completed the studies required of subject teachers before embarking on my doctoral thesis. At Oxford and Exeter, I worked in Angus Buckling’s group, primarily investigating phages. After that, I worked in Thomas Bell’s group at Imperial College, London, studying bacterial communities. In 2015, I started working as a reader at the University of York and began developing a plant–microbe research system in cooperation with, among others, Chinese researchers.

What do you expect from your work and work community?

New collaboration opportunities in the University of Helsinki research community. My research interests are very broad, and I often have an extremely low threshold for embarking on new research projects with an open mind. There are a lot of people I know working in Viikki right now, and it is nice to think that I can easily meet them, for example, over lunch.

What made you apply to the University of Helsinki?

Originally, I moved to the Great Britain for two years with a Marie Skłodowska-Curie research grant, but that eventually extended to a visit lasting 12 years. Before that, I completed my doctoral thesis at the University of Helsinki. In other words, I am returning to my roots at a career stage fitting for such a larger transition. After all, Finland is my beloved home country, the University of Helsinki an internationally recognised top university, and the professorship in microbiology a great opportunity.

What are the most significant achievements in your career so far?

Overall, the transition from a doctoral researcher to research group leader has been a major achievement that has required a lot of effort as well as support from a large group of colleagues and mentors. In terms of science, my biggest achievements relate to the study of phages used to control plant pathogens and the development of applications. Some of the related research has been published in, for example, the Nature Biotechnology series.

In terms of basic research, one of our main goals is to understand the evolution of bacteria in various microbiomes, such as the root systems of plants or the lungs of people with cystic fibrosis. I am interested in the speed of microbial evolution and its consequences for the functioning of plant ecosystems and the severity of infections.

Are you still conducting research elsewhere?

I collaborate a lot with Chinese researchers at the Nanjing Agricultural University, where I also hold an honorary doctorate. Even today, part of my research takes place at the University of York. Consequently, I have international partners all over the world.