Yrjö Helariutta, professor of developmental plant biology, has been recruited to the University of Cambridge to continue his work there in the same capacity. Some of the members of Professor Helariutta’s research group, approximately ten researchers in the Arabidopsis team, will move from Viikki to England.
Other members of the group, a handful of researchers focusing on vascular plants, will remain at the University of Helsinki, with Helariutta serving as their telecommuting superior.
The work of the vascular plant team and the Arabidopsis team is closely interconnected. Arabidopsis is known as the “fruitfly of the plant world”, a model organism which enables researchers to study the functions of genes quickly and cost-effectively in a laboratory setting. Many of the plant’s basic biological functions are identical to those of large trees.
Growth for the Helsinki group
Helariutta’s research team demonstrated as early as 1999 that the plant hormone cytokinin regulates the development of the vascular tissue in vascular plants. The group has continued to generate comprehensive knowledge of plant developmental biology and its mechanisms.
Currently the group’s main research question is how genes regulate the specialisation of plant cells in the vascular cambium layer under bark. The cells either generate rigid cell walls and die, i.e. they become wood, or they lose their nuclei and begin to serve the organism by transporting nutrients as part of the phloem.
“In terms of research funding the agreement with Cambridge is a very positive thing. Our Arabidopsis research is now fully funded by the ERC and British Gatsby Foundation, which means that the Helsinki-based vascular plant team can even be expanded," Helariutta explains.
Arabidopsis research for publication, wood research for industry
The Arabidopsis research in Cambridge can be characterised as typical basic research, and its publication profile is very prominent. Meanwhile, the wood research in Helsinki is more applied, and thus of more interest to industry.
“It is easier to attract the attention of Finnish wood industry experts by talking to them about birch than Arabidopsis, even though their cell mechanisms are identical," says Helariutta.
“We in the wood team recently decoded the genome of the silver birch,” he adds. “We can now identify genes which regulate the tree’s growth or quality, such as lignin content or knottiness.”