Monthly Archives: April 2016

The Linnean Center for Plant Biology

Carl Linnaeus is considered the father of modern taxonomy. He was born in southern Sweden, but moved on his early years to Uppsala to study botany and medicine. Afterwards he became professor and in 1750 ended up being rector of Uppsala University. Because of his great legacy, there is a street in city center honoring his name, a famous coffee shop, a small botanical garden, many people named after him and of course the Linnean Center for Plan Biology. This center is an effort made by SLU and Uppsala University to gather all plant scientists in Uppsala into a  interdisciplinary and collaborative platform. The master program in Plant Biology is part of it, hence my classmates and I share the fascination that Linnaeus had for plants back in the 18th century.

Linnean Garden in summer. I took the picture.

I believe it is very strategic to promote collaboration between different departments and research groups. It promotes innovation and resources are used wisely. In fact, most of the researchers, independently of the university they belong to, work in the same building: Uppsala Biocenter, which is located inside SLU campus in Ultuna.

The center organizes seminars and events often. The next one will be a seminar about ROXYs proteins in plants. More information can be found here.




Pgt TKTTF: a fungus that threatens global food production

Lately I have been thinking a lot about what I eat and  realized that I base my diet mainly on two plants: rice and wheat. Apparently I am not the only one, because according  to FAO statistics rice and wheat are the two most cultivated food crops in the world.

Most of the food I eat every day is based on wheat. I took the picture.

However, it is definitely not  smart from us humans to rely our feeding upon a few plants because it might lead to catastrophic consequences. And it has happened before:  One pathogen strikes, destroys thousands of hectares and food production is compromised. Actually, one of the hypothesis for the fall of the roman empire relies on a huge loss of wheat plants due to a rust epidemic.

Well, today we are facing a similar threat caused by Puccinia graminis f. sp. tritici TKTTF, commonly called stem rust. This fungus infects wheat plants and can lead to huge losses in fields. Plant scientists have worked on improving wheat varieties and they have found resistance genes that have allowed farmers to use resistant seeds. In addition barbery trees, where the fungus completes its life cycle, have been cut off from some areas (actually, in the US they eradicated it!).  Taking this together,  this disease became a minor worry after the 1960s. However, the pathogen evolved faster than plant scientists expected, and it has broken plants resistance. Three times in less than 20 years.

Figueroa et al. 2016
This is how the fungus looks on wheat plants. Nasty, huh? Taken from Figueroa et al. (2016) Front.PlantSci.7:205. doi: 10.3389/fpls.2016.00205

A few days ago, Les J. Szabo form the United States Department of Agriculture visited SLU and gave a seminar regarding this fungus. He is an expert on the topic, and what he talked about motivated this post. As I said above, the fungus has found how to hijack plants’ resistance (read more about plant immune system here) first in 1997 in Uganda, and just a few years ago in Ethiopia and Kenya. It is unknown so far why Pgt TKTTF is overcoming plant resistance so quickly, but genomic studies are being conducted to find out. The main problem is that this fungal spores travel long distances, and it is estimated that from 80 to 95% of the cultivated wheat in the world is susceptible.

This whole topic is very exiting for me from all stand points. Specially because the biology and evolution of the pathogen is puzzling, but also because it might affect many other people besides me (hee, I really like pasta). Additionally, some other questions are raised. Should we start to diversify our crops? maybe also change the way we breed plants? what about using new technologies such as gene editing to speed up research and breeding?. For now, I hope this does not become a problem in the future. I really do.

Most of the information was taken from the seminar. But some additional reading can be done on the webpage of the Cereal Disease Laboratory at the USDA. Also, there is a very good article published by Les J. Szabo and his colleagues earlier this year. Read it here (It is Open Access, yayy!)

Hej då! :mrgreen: (bye in Swedish language)


Focus on forest pathology

I just started a new course, and after being in three different Swedish universities I am glad to be back to SLU. The course is called Research Training and it works as an internship: students choose one research group or company to work in for two months with a 100% time dedication. I struggled a bit to apply for it, because master students usually don’t take it during spring. However,  Anders Kvarnheden (the MSc. coordinator) made it possible.

I looked at some research groups whose work interested me, and sent an e-mail to one  professor at the Forest Mycology and Plant Pathology department at SLU. I  included in the message a brief presentation and my CV. He forwarded it to one of the researchers at the department and after a few days I got a reply with a project proposal. We had a meeting together with two researchers and discussed the project, which I  liked a lot! It is about one rust fungus which infects Norway spruce- but I will write a more detailed post about it.

I have been already working in the laboratory for 3 weeks, and so far I have liked it a lot. I have excellent communication with my supervisors, experiments have gone smoothly and I have gotten very interesting results up to now! The environment at the department is really nice; they do fika twice a day, have a common fruit bowl and even took a picture of me and posted at the department board and webpage.

Silly-face portrait at the department board.

Overall, I am very excited and motivated about the project, and hope the best for upcoming experiments and results… As I mentioned above, I will be writing about it in later posts!

Hej då :mrgreen:  (bye in Swedish language)


Accommodation in Uppsala

Housing in Uppsala is the biggest issue a student might face. There are several myths around, but I will share the one that I have been told is true: Last autumn a Finnish guy (who is friends with a friend of a friend), together with her German girlfriend had to sleep several weeks in a tent until they found a place to stay in. Crazy, but real. The problem is quite complex: International students from outside the EU (like me, hehe) and exchange students have guaranteed accommodation during their studies. However, master students from the EU (Including Swedish of course) have to find accommodation on their own. It is quite a struggle, because both universities (Uppsala University and SLU) grow in size, but housing facilities do not seem to grow at the same pace.

Nonetheless, there are some ways to find housing. The first one in signing in for the housing companies: Studentstaden and Heimstaden. IF YOU ARE READING THIS AND WILL STUDY IN UPPSALA GO AND SIGN IN NOW. For some rooms/flats these companies have queues, therefore the more days someone has been part of, the higher is the chance to get a room. Particularly, my Swedish flatmate applied when she was in highschool and did not know if one day she would come to Uppsala. Luckly she got admitted to SLU and found a place easily because of all the days she had been queuing. Secondly,  it is possible to become a member of a Nation (similar to sororities in the US, I should write a post about this later!). In this way is likely to find a room after 6 months of being a member…. Is still worth trying though! Finally, Facebook and Blocket: Here, people sublet rooms and flats and many of my friends  in Uppsala have found their places in this way. Also the earlier people start looking the easier they find housing. HOWEVER, NEVER, NEVER, EVER (I really mean the bold) MAKE A DEAL WITH SOMEONE WHO ASK YOU TO TRANSFER MONEY ABROAD. Many students get scammed by mo*****kers who take advantage of the housing problem in Uppsala.

SLU has a website with much more information. Visit it here.

I’m already working on a post about the different student housing locations in Uppsala, so stay tuned!

Best of luck!


Meet the Plant Biologists: Pernilla Elander

Pernilla is one of the MSc. students in Plant Biology. She is from Sweden and obtained her bachelor in biotechnology from SLU. Besides studying, she also teaches about sustainable agriculture and biotechnology to high school students! We met in campus for Fika one day before she left to United States to pursue her master’s thesis (How awesome is that, huh!?).

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Picture by Hernán Capador

Hernán Capador: Dear Pernilla, why did you choose to study the MSc. in Plant Biology at SLU?

Pernilla Elander: I already have been working quite a lot in the Plant Biology department here at SLU, so it was quite natural that I wanted to stay here. Additionally there is really good science, and I am interested in agriculture, so Plant Biology was pretty close to that. Also it is really interesting the collaboration between Uppsala University, Stockholm University, and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU),  because it opens up the possibility to getting to know more people and also, there is lot of international students, so it is more funny.

H.C.: Hehehe, indeed! But then, why are you interested in agriculture?

P.E.: My family is an agriculture family, and I’ve been working in farms as well. Although there is no much struggle in Sweden right now, in the future there is going to be struggle in the whole world, so it feels like it is possible for me to save the world!

H.C.: Talking about the world, I know you are going abroad! Tell me more about what will you do in the United States.

P.E.: At the moment I really don’t know! (laughter) because we had to change my initial plan, but overall my focus there will be learning new methods, and get to know people there to have contacts for the future. Since I already have a PhD project here in Sweden –I’m a lucky bastard I know, hehehe- it is not that important for me that the master thesis turns really really good, instead is better for me to have a nice platform for my PhD. But in any case, the big project is called “Oil crops for the future” and it’s a collaboration between 4 or 5 universities, and Nebraska is part of it. My group here at SLU works on autophagy and programmed cell death. They’ve found that when they upregulate those functions, some crops have an increased yield. That is of course very important for the future! In fact, these plants also seem to be resistant to environmental stress, but upon this I will probably work in during my PhD. In US they are looking for different kind of lipids in plants and maybe how to transfer genes form plant to plant to produce other kinds of lipids that could be used for industry. Also very important for the future!

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Picture by Hernán Capador

 H.C.: That is very cool! I saw a few days ago on your Instagram profile that you dislike organic agriculture. How come?

I think the idea is very good, but now at least in Sweden it has become such a huge trend and people tend to just think the easy way: “If I buy organic then it is the best solution for the environment and for myself”. But that is not the complete truth about it, especially in Sweden where we are quite in front of all the agriculture research compared to other European countries, and worldwide. We are already very thoughtful about the environment and agriculture is already very sustainable as it is, so saying that Swedish conventional agriculture is not good for the environment is lying. Actually, sometimes organic agriculture is less good than the conventional, so I would like kind of take away the organic label on everything and just push all agriculture to a more sustainable practice instead.

I am sure Pernilla is going to do it great in US and will collaborate to save the world in the future! She also told me that she might start using Instagram more often, so follow her adventures in @pernillaelander