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Molecular Plant Biology

Research in Molecular Plant Biology is focused on understanding the structure, function and regulation of photosynthesis in plants, algae and cyanobacteria. We study cellular components and energy transfer pathways in different photosynthetic systems to identify the roles of photosynthesis in cell metabolism and signaling, development and stress responses, also upon changes in ambient environment. Applied aspects of photosynthesis research include modification of photosynthesis for bioenergy production, waste water treatment and use of photosynthetic organisms as cell factories for the production of valuable compounds.

Teaching in Molecular Plant biology provides a theoretical basis for understanding cell and molecular biology and biochemistry of photosynthetic organisms, as well as practical skills including genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, physiology and biophysics. Molecular Plant Biology unit organizes teaching in Molecular Systems Biology track in the Master´s Programme in Digital Health and Life Sciences, and provides teaching on Molecular Plant Biology for the Department of Biology.

Personnel​ in Molecular Plant Biology comprise two professors, one associate professor, two assistant professors, two senior lecturers, and three university teachers. Professor Eva-Mari Aro was granted with the title of Academician of Science in 2017. In addition there are more than 60 researchers funded by external resources working in the unit. Molecular Plant Biology premises are located in BioCity and PharmaCity.

Collaboration: Research groups in Molecular Plant Biology are involved in numerous national and international collaborative projects and research networks. The unit also hosts the Academy of Finland Centre of Excellence in Research (CoE) programme "Molecular Biology of Primary Producers" 2014-2019 in collaboration with the University of Helsinki, the Nordic Centre of Excellence ”Towards versatility of aquatic production platforms: unlocking the value of Nordic bioresources” (NordAqua) 2017-2022 in collaboration with numerous Finnish and Nordic universities, research institutes and companies, as well as participates in Australian plant biology Centre of Excellence (Plant Energy Biology) 2014-2020 hosted by the University of Western Australia.

Research falls in several subprojects addressing (i) the structure/function relationships of photosynthetic pigment protein complexes in the thylakoid membrane, (ii) regulation mechanisms of light harvesting, excitation energy distribution and electron transfer reactions, involving the linear and cyclic electron transfer mode as well as the characterization of electron valves, (iii) the signaling cascades that are initiated in the photosynthetic apparatus of the thylakoid membrane as a result of changing environmental cues and lead to reprogramming of nuclear gene expression and acclimation of the organism to a new environment. We aim at systems biology level understanding of the interacting bioenergetic networks and their role in regulating the growth and stress tolerance of photosynthetic organisms. Research includes a number of different oxygenic photosynthetic organisms, from cyanobacteria and algae to lower land plants (mosses and ferns), and both gymnosperms (spruce) and angiosperms (Arabidopsis among others) and addresses (iv) the evolution of photosynthetic regulation mechanisms that made the transfer of life from oceans to the land possible. (v) Applied photosynthesis research in the project focuses on efficient solar energy harnessing for biofuel and chemical production in “synthetic cell factories” using cyanobacteria as a production chassis. Project leader Eva-Mari Aro

As sessile organisms, plant growth and development largely depend on abiotic and biotic environmental factors. Survival under ever changing growth conditions requires sensing the fluctuating factors following the induction of acclimation processes in plants. Of these factors, light is the most important regulator influencing both energy metabolism and developmental processes of plants. Plants have adopted efficient mechanisms to sense changes in the growth conditions and to induce adaptive processes in order to cope with various environmental stresses and to raise plant fitness in natural growth conditions. Chloroplasts are key components in this regulatory signalling network. Our research aims at studying the role of the redox components in chloroplast and in the signalling processes including enzymes of protein phosphorylation, thiol regulators and reactive oxygen species. Project leader Eevi Rintamäki

High osmolality, which is caused by drought, salinity and low temperature, is one of the major stresses limiting crop productivity. Our objective is to elucidate plant signaling pathways that respond to osmotic stress. To answer the questions, we are analyzing the regulatory mechanism of the SNF1-related protein kinase (SnRK) 2s, which our previous study showed are central kinases in the pathways, using model plant Arabidopsis.  Project leader Hiroaki Fujii

The Plant Biophysics Project studies Photosystem II, the oxygen evolving enzyme complex of photosynthesis. The main focus is on light-induced inhibition of Photosystem II. The group has suggested a mechanism in which photoinhibition of Photosystem II is triggered by absorption of light by the manganese ions of the oxygen evolving complex of Photosystem II. In addition to photoinhibition, the group is interested in the biophysics of Photosystem II, using mainly chlorophyll fluorescence as a tool. Project leader  Esa Tyystjärvi

The chloroplasts of higher plants perform oxygenic photosynthesis resulting in the transfer of light energy into chemical form, which is the basis of heterotrophic life on Earth. To ensure immaculate primary production under a wide spectrum of environmental conditions, the structure and function of photosynthetic machinery must be extremely dynamic. The ultimate aim of our project is to resolve how the reducing power produced by the photosystems is distributed towards various stromal reactions. We have specifically focused on (i) the physiological specificities of different leaf FNR (ferredoxin-NADP+ oxidoreductase) isoforms in chloroplast metabolism, (ii) the functional roles of membrane-bound and soluble FNR pools, (iii) the mechanisms of FNR-containing multi-protein complex formation at the thylakoid membrane, and (iv) the effects of post-translational modifications on photosynthetic processes (e.g. NADP+ photoreduction). Project leader Paula Mulo

Cyanobacteria are important primary producers and the ancestors of plant chloroplasts. Acclimation of cyanobacteria to changing environmental conditions requires adjustment of gene expression. The sigma subunit of RNA polymerase is a key regulator of gene expression. The focus of our research is to reveal roles of different sigma subunits when cyanobacteria acclimate to new conditions. Project leader: Taina Tyystjärvi

Besides photosynthesis, chloroplasts perform essential signalling functions in light acclimation and various stress responses in plants. The final acclimation responses are, however, influenced by cross-talk with other components of the cellular signalling networks. Our aim is to reveal how serine/threonine protein phosphatase 2A (PP2A) family members regulate developmental programs and acclimation strategies in plants.  Project leader Saijaliisa Kangasjärvi 

In this project we study the how the RNA-silencing mediated defence mechanisms affects virus infections and symptoms in plants, and how the viral RNA-silencing suppressors interfere with the host plants? gene regulation, physiology and phenotype, and plants? susceptibility to other virus infections. We study these interactions by using transgenic N. tabacum and N. benthamiana plants, that express different viral silencing suppressors. Full transcriptomes of these plants are analysed using microarrays for Tobacco (Agilent), and the proteomes are analysed using 2D-gel electrophoresis, and western blotting.  Project leader Kirsi Lehto 

The work combines fundamental photosynthetic research with cyanobacterial metabolic engineering. The research is strongly focused on the development of synthetic biology strategies to enhance the photosynthetic CO2 capture towards the production of desired metabolites, biofuels, polymer precursors and commodity chemicals. The research is founded on extensive bioinformatic analysis of the systems, accompanied by the design and evaluation of tools to characterize associated metabolic changes that take place in the cell. Project leader: Pauli Kallio.

We are developing and using molecular detection and quantification methods in order to determine, whether any of the mycotoxins in cereal grains are correlated with the DNA levels of plant pathogenic Fusarium and Alternaria fungi, and whether these methods can reliably be used to distinguish grain samples with high mycotoxin levels. We are also using molecular methods for identification and phylogenetic studies of different fungal and plant species as well as for the identification and following the survival of fungal and bacterial strains of biological control in treated plants.  Tapani Yli-Mattila 

The sexual reproduction of the basidiomycete Schizophyllum commune starts with the mating of  haploid strains carrying different genes at A- and B- locus. The genes of A mating type locus encode homeodomain (HD) type transcription factors and those in B a pheromone/receptor system. The G-protein coupled receptor at B -locus of a haploid strain has to interact with a pheromone produced by the other mate. The pheromone-receptor interaction induces the reciprocal nuclear exchange and migration between the mates which then results with the help of HD transcription factors into the growth of a dikaryon with fruiting bodies. My research aims to clarify the role of the small GTPases and microtubule associated motor molecules in the mating process. Marjatta Raudaskoski.

Cyanobacteria and algae are excellent model organisms for the study of oxygenic photosynthesis and are also promising feed-stocks for blue biorefineries. Our team is focused on the characterization of alternative electron transport routes which regulate photosynthesis under different environmental conditions. This knowledge is valuable in identifying ‘waste’ points in electron transport and thus guiding future genetic and metabolic engineering efforts to channel major electron flux to targeted chemicals. We are also studying the biodiversity of Nordic cyanobacteria and algae for production of biofuels and high-value products and applying immobilization techniques to increase light-to-product conversion efficiency. Project leader Yagut Allahverdiyeva-Rinne.