Scandinavian research institute: School of Biotechnology, KTH/AlbaNova University Center, Stockholm, Sweden

AlbaNova main entrance. Photo by Torkel Berglund

The plant research at the School of Biotechnology at KTH was initiated during the 1980s. At that time, the department was located within the old parts of KTH main campus at Valhallavägen in Stockholm, and in 2001 it was moved to AlbaNova University Center at Roslagstull.

From start, the plant research concerned production of secondary metabolites (expensive pharmaceuticals) in plant cell cultures. Later on the focus was changed towards an understanding of stress and defense in plants in general. Nowadays the plant research at the School of Biotechnology covers a wide range of topics.

Homology model of the Arabidopsis GH5_7 mannanase AtMan5-1. Illustration by Henrik Aspeborg

Little is known about the catalytic properties of plant glycoside hydrolases (GHs). Henrik Aspeborg is studying targets of this class of carbohydrate-active enzymes involved in the modification and degradation of the plant cell wall in his Biomass Conversion Biotechnology group. Current primary research focus is on enzymes belonging to glycoside hydrolase family 5 (GH5) including mannanases involved in the formation of flowers, seeds, fruits and fibers. The research has potential to contribute to the understanding of plant development and cell wall re-organization, but the aim is also to find enzymes that can be integrated into industrial processes converting biomass into valuable products. The three main model organisms being studied are: poplar, spruce and Arabidopsis.

The research at the Division of Glycoscience led by Vincent Bulone is focused on various areas of plant glycobiology, comprising fundamental aspects on plants cell wall as well as biotechnological developments towards carbohydrate-based products. A major goal is to understand how extracellular polysaccharides in plants are formed, remodelled and hydrolysed. This fundamental knowledge on cell wall polysaccharide metabolism and self-assembly is exploited to develop applications relevant to a wide range of industries. This research requires multidisciplinary approaches that are fully integrated in the Division in the form of interconnected activities in the following areas: Bioenergy, Biomaterials, Biorefinery, Food Sustainability and Disease Control.

Agroinfiltration of tobacco plants. Photo by Ines Ezcurra

The research in the Plant Synthetic Biology group led by Ines Ezcurra aims at establishing how different types of transcription factor regulatory circuits regulate plant biomass formation. They investigate the wiring, or circuitry, of regulatory networks involved in stress tolerance and secondary cell wall formation in angiosperms. The rationale for this idea is that evolution of traits in multicellular organisms is frequently caused by mutations that alter the wiring of regulatory networks, modifying network gene expression dynamics and, as a consequence, expression of the network’s target genes. Based on these studies, we draw inspiration on natural networks to design synthetic transcription circuits aiming at increased and/or altered growth, in a synthetic biology type of approach.

Joakim Lundeberg is the head of the division of Gene Technology. His research group is located at the Science for Life Laboratory (SciLifeLab) and part of his research is plant oriented. Stefania Giacomello in his group works with spatial transcriptomics (ST) revealing gene expression regulation in the development of angiosperm and gymnosperm leaf primordia. They have developed this new method, spatial transcriptomics, that combines tissue imaging and cell specific RNA sequencing. Tissue expression profiles using massively parallel sequencing is performed, while maintaining the spatial information and context of those cells within tissue structures. They are applying this technology to generate spatial gene expression atlases of developing and mature leaves in both Populus tremula and Picea abies. The resulting expression profiles are used to provide new understanding of the role of transcription control during the evolution of leaf structure formation between these model angiosperm and gymnosperm species.

Picea abies plants. Photo by Anna Ohlsson

Plants are masters of self defense, but sometimes they need help to perform well within the very special growth conditions set by man. The Ecological Plant Biochemistry group led by Anna Ohlsson focuses on stress and defense in plants, especially how basic knowledge about natural processes can be used to promote plant defense within forestry and agriculture in an environmentally friendly way. Specifically they investigate the information chain triggered by activation of poly(ADP-ribose)polymerase, mediated by nicotinamide, as a potential highway of defense potentiation. The role of epigenetics (e.g. DNA methylation) within defense processes is also studied. The ambition is to go all the way from basic research to application within forestry and agriculture.

For more information about plant research at the School of Biotechnology, see its official homepage.

By Anna Ohlsson, KTH/AlbaNova University Center, Stockholm, Sweden