Researching the developmental biology of plants with Arabidopsis thaliana (thale cress)

15 Dec 2017

Multi-year funding from the Academy of Finland has enabled Academy Professor Yrjö Helariutta and his team to strengthen their leading position in the field of vascular tissue research, in which the competition just keeps intensifying.

“Support from the Academy of Finland has enabled me to both deepen and widen the scope of my research. Extending the scope of research is particularly important nowadays, when various new approaches and practices are available,” Helariutta says.

Arabidopsis thaliana, or thale cress, has remained the subject of his research since 1999, when his team demonstrated that the growth hormone cytokinin regulates the development of both thale cress and woody plants.

“Although thale cress, which belongs to the brassica genus of plants, is a rather unassuming herbaceous plant, many of its biological functions proceed in the same way as forest trees. In addition, it’s a very fast-growing and cheap ‘fruit fly’ of the botanical world.”

Thale cress has taught us about the development of trees

“With the help of thale cress, we’ve recently identified a new, translation-related regulatory system that determines whether wood cells typical of woody plants or storage cells typical of nutritional plants grow around the phloem. In principle, this finding allows the optimisation of plant organs as a source of carbon for various purposes,” Helariutta explains.


His team has succeeded in stimulating the plant to grow a radish-like taproot. “During this experiment, it was interesting to consider whether we could alter woody plants into nutritional plants such as carrots, swedes, turnips and radishes. In fact, the thale cress taproot we grew tasted pretty terrible. We already understand fairly well how cells divide when the phloem develops and how the phloem functions during the formation of a taproot. But there are still many questions to answer.”

Research in two countries

The end of Yrjö Helariutta’s five-year period as an Academy Professor is approaching. At the beginning of the period, he was invited to Cambridge University. The sabbatical leave connected to the Academy Professorship offered a unique opportunity to move to Cambridge and obtain broad-based funding there for thale cress research. His Academy Professor salary reduced to only 28 percent and his duties contracted to leadership of his team in Finland.

At the beginning of his Academy Professorship, Helariutta also obtained European Research Council (ERC) funding. He believes that it was one of the main reasons for his invitation to Cambridge.

“I was able to direct ERC funding to both Cambridge and my vascular plant research in Finland. ERC funding currently accounts for around a quarter of my research funding; the ERC is one of the main funders of my thale cress research. About a quarter of my research funding comes from Cambridge through the Sainsbury family’s Gatsby Foundation. In addition, I have funding paid directly from a University of Cambridge foundation.”

When Helariutta was invited to Cambridge, he negotiated an agreement based on which he would be there for at least five years. He is now in the fourth year.

“The future is still a little uncertain, but the idea is to return to Finland,” he says.

At Cambridge, with his fifteen-strong team, Helariutta is using thale cress to investigate which genes influence tree formation. On the other hand, the vascular plant team, which works in facilities on the Viikki Campus at the University of Helsinki, is conducting experiments on woody plants to determine whether knowledge gained from thale cress is applicable to trees.

Professor of Developmental Biology

Helariutta also serves as a Professor of Development Plant Biology at Cambridge. The facility, which focuses on plant development, is situated in a building sponsored by the Sainsbury family and completed in 2011.

The Sainsbury Laboratory is located in the famous Botanical Gardens of Cambridge University, which were founded by Charles Darwin’s mentor, John Stevens Henslow, in 1831. This large garden includes treasures such as a tree cloned from the original apple tree that led to Newton’s famous insight.

“The garden is also home to Darwin’s herbarium, which is cherished almost as if it were a holy relic. I have only got to see it once.”

Results of Academy Professorship

Helariutta says that his research profile has somewhat renewed during the Academy Professorship. He previously studied cambial zone activity, which is related to radial growth in plants, as a stem cell population. During the Academy Professorship, he has focused more on the phloem area of the cambial zone.

“We’ve found new regulators that regulate phloem differentiation. We’ve also defined an early phloem as functioning as a kind of signalling centre, which regulates the growth of the adjacent cambial zone. We’ve identified a large gene family associated with this signalling, which encodes the transcription regulators transmitted from the signalling centre to adjacent cells.”

“In addition, we’ve investigated how the phloem cells responsible for the long journey of the plant’s organic materials ‘command’ their surrounding cells. We’ve also identified new roles for some cell types.”

The Academy of Finland is currently funding Helariutta’s research, which mainly focuses on models of woody plants. “The Academy Professorship has enabled a major investment in birch genetics, which we’re currently pushing forward on the molecular level and in forestry.”

Finland could be a forerunner in networking

A busy travel schedule from Helsinki to Cambridge and back, and research activities at both universities have provided much food for thought on the research cultures of both countries.

“Nowadays, more and more contributors and a wide range of skills are needed to achieve results. If we want to see scientific results reflected in solutions in society, we need to get the whole value chain involved. Britain has such a large society that networking between different actors is still somewhat inflexible.”

“Networking could be much easier in Finland, which is a much smaller society. Since we have such a firm grasp of information technology, we could be pioneers in enabling different actors and funding bodies to find each other easily and rapidly implement socially important and interesting solutions.”

“Cambridge is a great place for conducting basic research. If I were fully engaged in basic research, it probably wouldn’t be worth returning from there. If you want to study issues on a broader basis, Finland might be the ideal place for doing so. However, we need to see the return of providers of bridge funding like Tekes, which would provide a continuum for basic research enabled by Academy of Finland funding. Such instruments and networking would enable faster progress towards socially significant solutions,” Helariutta says.

Original text in Finnish and photo by Suvi Ruotsi

Last modified 15 Dec 2017
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