Research on the invisible diversity of diseases receives dream funding

Anna-Liisa Laine, professor and evolutionary biologist, has received the highly competitive European Research Council (ERC) consolidator grant of two million euros.

She will use it to study the development of disease resistance during the coming five years. Her research focuses on plants, but the mechanisms of diseases and immunity are very similar in other species as well.

Laine wants to find out how plants in particular, and any individuals and populations in general, survive and develop their resistance under continuous attack by multiple pathogens.

Previous studies have focused on resistance mechanisms based on a model where a single host, meaning a plant or another organism, battles a single pathogen.

“In reality, the same host is often constantly bombarded by several pathogens, and symptoms may not reveal all of the diseases carried by the individual," says Laine.

The rapid development of gene sequencing methods has helped researchers discover this. Laine and her research group have since established that one individual may be infected by several different pathogens at once. Based on preliminary data, Laine estimates that the number of simultaneous diseases could be several dozens.

Measuring disease resistance in the meadows of the Åland Islands


So far, practically nothing is known about how the host’s immunity works and evolves under pressure from a diverse community of diseases. Neither do we know how diseases and the immune systems of the hosts vary between populations. This is what Laine intends to study with her recently acquired funding.

Laine is focusing her research on the Åland Islands and the ribwort plantain, which is already very familiar to her.

“The ribwort plantain, especially the 4,000 meadows which are home to its Åland populations, have been carefully mapped since the 1990s, thanks to now-deceased Professor Ilkka Hanski. The resulting long-term data are unique.”

Laine is using these same Åland meadows to find out how the disease populations plaguing the ribwort plantain vary between individuals and populations and how the differences in the disease communities affect resistance evolution.

The intention is to create projections of how the structure of disease communities can influence the growth and reproduction of individuals. At the same time, researchers will gain information on the factors that underlie the formation of disease communities.

Diseases have no respect for boundaries


Many of the viruses infecting the ribwort plantain also infect species used in agriculture.

“Diseases don’t respect the boundaries between nature and agriculture, but move freely between them. The results from the research will also provide new information on how living on such a boundary influences disease epidemics.”

Laine hopes her research will help prevent plant diseases. In the best case, it can be used to save entire crops and reduce the use of pesticides. Laine has previously received the ERC Starting Grant. Now the topic of her research was deemed to be so important that the ERC exceptionally awarded a new grant for the same research.

“This grant is a researcher's dream. I can freely decide what to use the money on while focusing on the main thing: my research.” 

Anna-Liisa Laine’s previous accolades include the Academy of Finland Award for Scientific Courage, the Docent of the Year award and the L’Oréal and UNESCO For Women in Science Award.

ERC funding for five in the University of Helsinki

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A total of 2,304 applications were submitted for the 2016 ERC application round and 314 been selected for funding.