The EcolChange Centre of Excellence Final Conference 2022

Photo by Jaan Liira

The Centre of Excellence in Research EcolChange – Ecology of Global Change: Natural and Managed Ecosystems – has been in operation since 2016 and will end on 1 March 2023, so it is time to take stock of what the most outstanding results have been and which areas of research are promising for further development.

The final conference of the EcolChange Centre of Excellence will take place on 28 October 2022 at the Oecologicum (new ecology building), University of Tartu, Liivi Street 2, Tartu.

Registration is open until 15 October 2022

In the framework of the conference, we will present breakthrough research and trends for further development of the EcolChange research (6 research groups).

A separate session is dedicated to doctoral students and young researchers. Speakers are expected to give a short presentation (1-2 Minutes) that will be interesting and understandable for all researchers in the different fields. 

The EcolChange Centre of Excellence is very international. 1/3 of its 150 members are from outside Estonia. Most of the conference participants are members of the Centre, but also researchers from other Estonian universities in addition to the University of Tartu and the Estonian University of Life Sciences.

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A new member in our team

Text and photo by Congmiao Xie

My name is Congmiao Xie and I come from Fujian province in the southeast of China. I am a doctoral student majoring in Environmental Sciences and Applied Biology under the co-supervision of Dr. Kristiina Mark and Prof. Dr. Ülo Niinemets.

I was awarded a Master’s degree in Botany at the Shandong Normal University (SDNU) in China under the co-supervision of Prof. Zun-Tian Zhao and Prof. Li-Song Wang. I studied subject courses at SDNU for the first year and then spent the next two years at the Kunming Institute of Bontany (KIB), Chinese Academy of Science, working on my Master’s thesis topic “Taxonomy and molecular systematics of Immersaria from China”. During my postgraduate study I was to the Tibetan Plateau for field work twice, at least one month each time. After being to the highest point of my fieldworks, the Everest Base Camp and to the lowest, the dry-hot valleys around Jinsha river, I realized even more how beautiful and abundant is the lichen diversity in my country. It would definitely be very interesting to study the diversity of lichens globally.

My doctoral topic in the Estonian University of Life Sciences, “Lichen secondary metabolite evolution and role in symbiont distribution and adaptation to climate change”, focuses on the diversity and evolution of lichen secondary metabolites in the context of symbiotic interactions to better understand ecological and biotic functions of lichen secondary compounds. During my PhD studies I hope to gain further knowledge and conduct high quality research on lichens and lichen chemistry, meet interesting people and enjoy the life in Estonia.

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Pollen beetle offspring is more parasitized under moderate nitrogen fertilization of oilseed rape due to more attractive volatile signal

Text by Valentina Zolotarjova

On 22th of August 2022 an Open Access two-year study of pollen beetle and their parasitoid orientation toward oilseed rape VOCs was published.

In the study we confirmed that oilseed rape moderate nitrogen fertilization is optimal for pollen beetle biological control which is the good news for farmers and amazing alternative to pesticide.

In Table 3 you can find potential attractants and repellents to be investigated with y-tube olfactometer bioassays – great future research hint.

For more results and details please check the article

A controlled environment chamber for growing plants
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New Phytologist Next Generation Scientist 2022

Text by Tana Wuyun and team

New Phytologist next generation scientists 2022 in Tartu, July 19 to 22

This year’s New Phytologist Next Generation Scientist Symposium was hosted by our city, the city of good thoughts, Tartu. The meeting took place between July 19 to 22. The four-day symposium gathered approximately 100 delegates from across the globe and “all walks of plant biology” who keenly communicated the existing state of their scientific works. In addition to oral and poster presentations, there were panel discussions on taking the next steps in early career, publishing articles, and publication ethics. The panel discussions were led by the different highly experienced mentors present at the conference and rooms were open for young scientists to ask questions during the panel discussion. See the link for information about the meeting

Five exciting posters were presented by Kaia Kask, Hassan Yusuf Sulaiman, Tana Wuyun, José Ángel Morales Sánchez and Upasana Sharma, members of Professor Niinemets’ lab and the Centre of Excellence – EcolChange. The presentations from our lab mainly centered on the physiological responses of plants under different stress and growth conditions. Aside from presenting a poster, Tana Wuyun was also a member of the local organizing team and a session chair. She and the team worked relentlessly on making the meeting a success, from talk selection to local arrangements and side fun activities including Tartu treasure hunt and a visit to the botanical garden. Also present at the meeting were our lab head, Professor Ülo Niinemets, and Dr. Tiina Tosens, both as mentors and session chairs, and Dr. Kristiina Mark as a mentor.

Dr. Kaia Kask

It felt great presenting my poster titled “Crown rust infection is more virulent in the primary host Avena sativa than in the alternate host Rhamnus frangula“ at the recently concluded New Phytologist Next Generation Scientists Symposium (19-22 July 2022), but guess what felt greater?  Learning and connecting with other young scientists and mentors drawn from across all fields of plant biology. I felt more motivated and energized for science than ever. If I was a whole electron, then it is safe to say the conference put me in an excited state. 

Hassan  Yusuf Sulaiman, PhD student

I was very lucky to be in the local organizing team during the New Phytologist Next Generation Scientists Symposium (19-22 July), and it was fun to chair a session as well, more importantly, I got the opportunity to present my passionate work with the title “Ubiquitous and unique methyl jasmonate-induced volatile defense responses in the lycophyte Selaginella martensii: timing, sensitivity, and gene expression” to people from all areas, the connections are amazing!

 Tana Wuyun, PhD student

The meeting featured a wide variety of talks that conveyed all the impressive work being done around the world. It was an excellent opportunity to share our current scientific interests as well as to get inspired by the studies and enthusiasm of other colleagues. The organization was outstanding and created an exceptional atmosphere, making the meeting a complete success.  I presented a poster with the title: “Volatile organic compounds of bryophytes in a changing climate”.

José Ángel Morales Sánchez, PhD student

It was a great opportunity to learn new things to apply in my research studies and to get to know some other ongoing interdisciplinary scientific research work around the world. I presented a poster at New Phytologist Next Generation Scientists Symposium (19-22 July) entitled “Photosynthetic acclimation of five macrolichens to canopy light gradients: resolving structural and physiological controls”.

 Upasana Sharma, PhD student

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The first African Student in Ülo Niinemets Lab defends her PhD thesis

Text by Yusuph Abiola

On 11 May 2022, another history was made when Chikodinaka N. Okereke, the first African student from Nigeria to be accepted for a PhD in Applied Biology, successfully defended her thesis under the supervision of Professor Ulo Niinemets. Here you can find a link to the PhD thesis ‘‘Effects of abiotic stress on foliage photosynthetic characteristics and volatile organic compound emissions in tropical agricultural species’’.

Three articles investigating the responses of tropical agricultural species to heat and wounding stresses using seven tropical agricultural crops were published in reputable journals.

It is evident in her thesis that tropical agricultural species have not been thoroughly investigated, especially on volatile organic compound emissions resulting from abiotic stresses. The study showed that the tropical species investigated were relatively resistant to abiotic stresses coupled with a low level of VOC emissions.

The thesis defense took place online and the lab members of the Department of Crop Science and Plant Biology supported her with their physical presence.

Chikodinaka Okereke (PhD) and Professor Ülo Niinemets after PhD thesis defence

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Modelling the influence of biotic plant stress on atmospheric aerosol particles

text by Ülo Niinemets

Our paper on modelling of aerosol formation due to biological stresses has been just published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. This paper convincingly shows that plants, when attacked by insects or pathogens, release a volatile burst high enough to make a difference in atmospheric characteristics. Aerosols determine how much solar radiation penetrates the atmosphere, and thus, alterations of aerosol abundance and characteristics can have major effects of climate. This is one of the ways of how plants can alter our climate. The study is based on plant stress studies in my lab, and on aerosol studies in Prof. Markku Kulmala​’s lab at the University of Helsinki. The study was initiated when Ditte Taipale​ was a postdoc in my lab in frames of my ERC grant SIP-VOL+. Ditte made a wonderful job in combing plant physiology and aerosol physics and modelling, and I believe that we all should be proud of the final result. In addition to Markku, Prof. Veli-Matti Kerminen and Dr Mikael Ehn from the Univ. Helsinki contributed to the study.  

Link to the articel

Taipale, D., Kerminen, V.-M., Ehn, M., Kulmala, M., and Niinemets, Ü.: Modelling the influence of biotic plant stress on atmospheric aerosol particle processes throughout a growing season, Atmos. Chem. Phys., 21, 17389–17431, Figure 1.
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The 3rd Lichen Photobiont Symposion, 27.-29.09.2021 in Czech Republic

Our researcher studying cryptogam ecology and physiology, Kristiina Mark, attended in the end of September the 3rd Lichen Photobiont Symposion in the beautiful (but “terrrrrible”) Giant Mountains National Park in Czech Republic. The conference talks and posters were focussed on the most recent research on lichen photobionts (both, chloro- and cyanobionts) but in addition held also a workshop on identification of aerophytical green algae and a field excursion to the national park mountains. In two days 21 oral presentations and 9 posters were presented by researchers from around the world. In this meeting, Kristiina had a talk on one of the most resent line of our research in cryptogams, about investigations on algal volatilomes.

Great acknowledgements and appreciation goes to Pavel Škaloud and all the co-organizers for planning and making it possible to attend such a nice meeting together with so many wonderful researchers!

Participants of the 3rd Lichen Photobiont Symposion in front of the hosting facility Patejdlova bouda (mountain cottage in the Giant Mountains National Park owned by the Charles University Faculty of Science; photo provided by the organizers).
View on the Giant Mountains National Park (photo by K. Mark).

A tasty way to know your organism – gingerbread biscuits with the logo of the meeting (a graphical visualization of Trebouxia sp; photos provided by the organizers).

Kristiina’s travel was funded by the Estonian Research Council grant PRG537 to Ülo Niinemets, “Increasing contribution of cryptogams to primary productivity of ecosystems in warmer and more humid climates”.

Text by Kristiina Mark.

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A new young member in our team

Text and photo by Jesamine Rikisahedew

My name is Jesamine Rikisahedew and as of September 2021, I am a first year PhD candidate in Environmental Sciences and Applied Biology at Eesti Maaülikool. My home country is South Africa, where I grew up along the coast with easy access to some of the best nature has to offer. We are renowned for having an unmatched diversity and abundance of plant life and are the proud home of 10% of the world’s flowering species, making SA a major contributor to the global ecological scene. It was natural then for me to gravitate towards plant biology in my academic career.

I graduated from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in South Africa with a BSc in Biological Sciences, in which my focuses were plant and animal ecophysiology and forensic genetics. My undergraduate thesis was based on the cultivation of microalgae for the development of enzyme inhibitors, which segued into my interest in microscopy. My Master’s thesis was entitled “Histo-phytochemical evaluation and characterization of the foliar structures of Tagetes minuta L. (Astereaceae)” in which electron microscopy was a large component, which compounded my interest in plant anatomy and microscopy techniques.  

To expand my horizons and hone my skills in plant ecophysiology, I have joined Professor Ülo Niinemets’ team under the primary supervision of Associate Professor Tiina Tosens where I will be working on the topic “Physiological and structural trade-offs underlying the global variation of mesophyll conductance” wherein I will be gathering anatomical and physiological data from higher and lower plant specimens collected from every major clade in the efforts of determining what factors affect mesophyll conductance, and thus, photosynthesis in photosynthetic organisms. I am hopeful that this project will give me the opportunity to contribute towards this field of knowledge, meet new and interesting people, and motivate me towards a career in academics.

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Estonian forest exploration: Lichens, nature and much more!!

Text and photos by Upasana Sharma

Hello everyone!

This Summer I was exploring Estonian forests for sampling lichens for my PhD project. My fieldwork took me to six different forests and parks nearby Tartu, most of which I visited for the first time. It was exciting and a bit challenging for me to visit different forest alone as Estonian landscapes and forests are so different to the natural areas in my home country and what I am used to but later on, I started enjoying to be in the forest and the ambiance out there. I was able to accomplish each task successfully.

This field work was a great opportunity for me to better understand the ecology of lichens and increased my knowledge about the most frequent lichen species in Estonian natural forest and urban parks. For example; Xanthoria parietina, a bright orange or yellow colored lichen (as shown in picture) having high amount of parietin pigment is mostly growing on highly sun exposed locations, i.e. common in urban parks but generally absent deep in natural dense forests where light availability is scarce. During these visits I also experienced the different forest types that are around Tartu and learned about the common tree species in these forests.

Lichen Xanthoria parietina (yellow patches)on tree bark.
Example of Estonian natural forest nearby Kambja, Tartumaa.

I am grateful to my supervisor Dr. Kristiina Mark for her immense encouragement during the work and also thankful to my colleague Tiia for her help. This field work made me more independent as it was something beyond my comfort zone.  I enjoyed thoroughly going to the forest. Now I am more close to the nature I can say. I would love to explore more forests again and can’t wait for the next summer.


Doing fieldwork in Vapramäe forest nearby Peedu, Tartumaa
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A new team member – João Paulo Silva Souza

Text and photo by João Paulo

I am João Paulo Silva Souza from North of Brazil and from September 2021 I started my PhD studies in the Institute of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences of the Estonian University of Life Sciences.

I am grateful for having the opportunity to integrate into the professor Ülo Niinemets work team, and for having the opportunity to continue my academic career as a PhD student at an institution of excellence.

I graduated with BSc Degree from the State University of Pará/Brazil (UEPA) in 2017, where I worked with botanical collections, plant taxonomy and ecology, focusing on the diversity and distribution of bryophytes. Right after graduation I started my Master’s Degree in Plant Biology at the Federal University of Pernambuco/Brazil (UFPE) where I had the opportunity to continue my research on bryophyte diversity and distribution. My MSc dissertation was entitled “Spatial distribution of bryophyte functional characteristics along environmental gradients in an Atlantic Forest remnant in Northeast Brazil”. Since then, I have enrolled in several English courses in Ireland.

Now with the possibility to continue working with the organisms I am interested in, I am very excited to continue my studies under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Ülo Niinemets and Dr. Kristiina Mark on the topic of “Cryptogam microbial communities diversity, distribution and dependence on climatic, ecological and biological factors” as a PhD student.

Over the next four years I will encounter many new and exciting challenges that will improve me as a scientist. I will work mainly with cryptogam species (bryophytes and lichens) and their associated microbiome (bacteria, fungi and algae) regarding taxonomic and functional diversity, using next-generation sequencing (NGS). My goal is to improve scientific knowledge and understanding of the ecological roles of these organisms in the ecosystems on the face of environmental changes.

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