How does a butterfly defeat stress?
Environmental change causes stress to organisms, which has a bearing on both present generations and evolution. Marjo Saastamoinen received over one million in EU funding to study stress coping mechanisms.

For organisms, changes in the natural conditions mean variation in the quality of nutrition, which causes stress in them. Climate change exacerbates the problems.

Academy Research Fellow Marjo Saastamoinen of the Department of Biosciences received a five-year 1.5-million-euro Starting Grant from the European Research Council, which will enable her to study mechanisms for coping with stress.

Among other things, Saastamoinen will focus on caterpillars living in difficult conditions, especially on the mysteries of their intestines.

"Certain intestinal bacterial strains may help caterpillars cope with food of poorer quality," the researcher explains.

In difficult environments, caterpillars grow more slowly but are able to compensate for this by going through several larval stages.

Golden team of population researchers

Saastamoinen secured the highly competitive ERC funding for a team that has been exceptionally successful in the same funding calls in previous years: in 2011 the Metapopulation Research Group received an ERC Starting Grant thanks to Anna-Liisa Laine, who now works as an Academy Research Fellow. A few years earlier, the group's director, Academy Professor Ilkka Hanski, picked up an ERC Advanced Grant for established researchers.

The group's research subject for twenty years or so has been the Glanville fritillary, which is analysed at every thinkable level: from genes to population interactions.

Back to nature

Marjo Saastamoinen studies the genetic variation, behaviour and life-history ecological factors of the Glanville fritillary inhabiting different meadows. She is out to find adaptations to local habitats. The butterflies are observed in their natural living conditions.

"I wanted to take my research back to nature," Saastamoinen says. "Laboratory conditions do not reflect the real world."

Her research focuses especially on the impact of dry summers. What will happen to the butterflies if our northern winters become permanently mild with a reduced snowfall?

"That's an interesting question, because overwintering is vital to the Glanville fritillary. They build a winter nest, and a lack of snow would definitely affect the conditions," Saastamoinen muses. "Hardly any research has been done on this, however. Perhaps we should add the impact of snow to our research questions."

Starting Grants from the European Research Council are highly esteemed internationally. Their aim is to support promising research leaders in establishing a research group and launching independent work in Europe. No more than seven years may have passed since the research leader completed his or her doctoral thesis.

University of Helsinki research projects funded by the European Research Council (ERC)

Nature: Hanski's group sequenced the genome of the Glanville fritillary