ERC awards significant funding to plant biodiversity scientist

Anna-Liisa Laine, Professor of Plant Biodiversity, has been awarded the highly competitive 2.5 million euro European Research Council Advanced Grant funding for a five-year term.

As primary producers, plants support life on Earth, and do so by relying on certain microbes for nutrient acquisition and stress tolerance while at the same time, other pathogenic microbes attack plants and reduce their fitness. Plant biodiversity is currently under extensive change due to human-imposed climate change and habitat use.

“Currently we know virtually nothing about how plant-associated microbial diversity and the interactions between plants and microbes are changing,” says Professor Anna-Liisa Laine, the leader of the new ERC project.

Long-term nature observations collected in Finland offer unique opportunities to study how past plant biodiversity change affects associated microbial communities. The new project “The Coevolutionary Consequences of Biodiversity Change” aims to uncover the consequences of human-imposed environmental change on both ecology and the evolution of species interactions.

“Coevolution whereby plants and microbes evolve reciprocally is an important driver of these interactions. By combining genome-level investigations with experimentation and field surveys of natural plant–microbe communities, we aim to determine whether and how these evolutionary mechanisms have been perturbed,” Laine says.

Professor Anna-Liisa Laine is an evolutionary ecologist with a strong background in studying plant-microbe interactions. She has investigated the mechanisms that govern plant–pathogen dynamics across scales from molecular to regional epidemiological levels. Laine’s past research has generated breakthrough insights on how human-imposed environmental change is altering the interactions between plants and their pathogens in natural populations. With her research team Laine has demonstrated how habitat fragmentation renders isolated populations vulnerable to disease in nature (see the Nature -article), and how plant biodiversity–mediated infection risk in natural communities (see the. eLife-article). 

Further information

Laine has been Professor of Ecology at the University of Zurich since 2019. This project will see her return to the University of Helsinki in autumn 2023, in a professorship in plant biodiversity established at the beginning of the year. For the time being, Laine is the only person in Finland to receive the highly competitive ERC grant in the Starting Grant, Consolidator Grant and Advanced Grant categories. 

Laine heads the Research Centre for Ecological Change (REC), and is an active advocate of long-term ecological monitoring.

Even on an international scale, Finland has unique long-term monitoring datasets that can be used to determine how nature is changing and the factors driving this change. In her ERC-funded project, Laine investigates, with the help of forest undergrowth monitoring datasets compiled by Natural Resources Institute Finland, how forestry practices and the changing climate affect the microbes and disease resistance of the forest understory vegetation. The work is being carried out in collaboration with Professor Raisa Mäkipää.