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Lunch Pitches with Stéphane Verger and Christiane Funk

To encourage cross pollination of ideas between researchers from different disciplines, IceLab hosts interdisciplinary research lunches with the vision of allowing ideas to meet and mate. During the Lunch Pitch Season, the creative lunches take place at KBC every other Tuesday.

Place: KBCon Lilla Fokusrum  (KBC Focus Environment’s glass room), KBC
Time: Tuesday 4 February at 12:00.

Sign up to get a free sandwich at the lunch pitch

Pitch 1: Christiane Funk: Can we use local microalgae to clean our water and produce energy-rich biomass?

Professor at Department of Chemistry, Umeå University


By 2050 the human population is forecast to expand from 7.5 to 9.6 billion people. We will require 70% more food, 50% more fuel, and 50% more water. At the same time we need to reduce CO2 emissions by over 80% to slow down the climate change! One approach to address this problem is to recycle CO2 for fuel- or chemical-production using photosynthesis. Photosynthetic organisms use solar energy to incorporate atmospheric CO2 into organic molecules (biomass). They therefore not only mitigate climate change by counteracting increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, they also produce biomass, which provides food and feed, and even can be used in technical processes to gain valuable bio-products and biofuels. Microalgae and cyanobacteria are without doubt the most productive photosynthetic organisms on Earth. Compared to energy crops microalgae are known to obtain higher effective photosynthetic efficiency, their biomass can be doubled in a few hours (i.e. as short as 3.5 h). Microalgae can synthesize 20 times more oil per hectare than terrestrial plants, which then can be used e.g. for biofuel production. And microalgae can utilize industrial flue gas as a carbon source and grow in wastewater.

While most algal parks are located in warm and sunny countries we were able to show that local microalgae can be used successfully for wastewater reclamation and biomass generation even in Nordic climates. We also showed that our Nordic algae clean wastewater from nitrogen and phosphorus as well as from contaminants more efficiently than conventional wastewater reclamation.

Besides biofuels (and biogas), what other uses can you think of for algal biomass produced through wastewater processing?

Pitch 2: Stéphane Verger: How do plants achieve multicellularity?

Assistant Professor at Umeå Plant Science Center, SLU


Most of the plants that we see around us in nature and the plants that we study in the lab or in the field, whether it is for fundamental research or breeding and improvement of agriculture, share the fundamental feature of being multicellular organisms. Multicellularity can be achieved by a tight control of cell-to-cell adhesion, making sure that the cells that constitute the organism remain attached to each other to maintain the overall integrity of the organism, but also that the adhesion is not too tight and allows the proper growth and development of the organism. While this has been largely studied in animal systems, we still know very little about how plant cell-to-cell adhesion works.

Recently we have started to identify genes in plants that are involved in the control of cell-to-cell adhesion, and while there is still a long way to go, we start to unravel the complexity of the sensing and signaling pathways involved. But ultimately, adhesion is a physical parameter. What is the strength holding the cells together? What are the forces that would otherwise pull the cells apart? Are these mechanical forces also signals that the plants can perceive and respond to in order to maintain cell-to-cell adhesion?

We are now initiating interdisciplinary approaches combining biology, chemistry and physics to better understand how plants achieve their multicellularity.

About the Pitchers

  Christiane Funk is a Professor in Biochemistry (since 2008) at the Department of Chemistry, UmU. She completed her Ph.D. in Germany, Post-docs in the USA and Australia, and was an Assistant Prof. at Stockholm University prior to coming to Umeå.

Read more about Christiane at her home page:


Stéphane Verger is an assistant professor at Umeå Plant Sciences Centre (UPSC), within the department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology of SLU. He has a PhD in plant sciences from the University Paris Saclay in France and the french National Institute of Agricultural Sciences (INRA). Since his PhD he has been studying different aspects of the question of cell to cell adhesion in plants, in the context of plant growth and development. He joined the UPSC in January 2019 to start his research group focusing on this question with an interdisciplinary perspective, combining biology, chemistry and physics, both on the plant model species Arabidopsis thaliana, and hybrid aspen.

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