What are your research topics?
I investigate how plants produce wood, also known as xylem. Bark hides a thin layer of cells known as cambium. In the cambium, cells divide and form wood cells. I study, at the level of genes and proteins, how cell division and differentiation are regulated to maintain a balance between cell division and wood formation.
Where and how does the topic of your research have an impact?
In addition to xylem, the cambium produces inner bark, or phloem, which together with the wood cells is responsible for transporting water, nutrients and regulatory substances from one plant part to another. In addition, wood as a hard material keeps plants upright. Within the tree bark is a second layer of cambium, which produces bark or cork on the surface of the trunk and roots, protecting the inner parts of the plant.
In other words, these two types of cambium can be said, in analogy to animal biology, to bear responsibility for the formation of the skin, blood vessels and spine of the plant.
Understanding the functioning of cambium is in itself important to plant biology. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is bound to wood in the form of cellulose, lignin and other polymers. Understanding the formation of wood is important, for example, if you wish to breed plants that bind carbon more effectively.
What is particularly inspiring in your field right now?
In the past year, a couple of incredible techniques have been introduced in the field of molecular biology, which are rapidly advancing research in the field. From among these, I will highlight the gene editing tool, which can be used to precisely modify, for example, the functioning of specific genes associated with wood formation.
My group developed this system further, and now we can modify gene function in the desired cells at the desired time, and then monitor the effect on wood formation.
Ari Pekka Mähönen is Professor of Plant Molecular Biology at the Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences.