Michael Wrzaczek, University of Helsinki
Turku is set for an invasion of plant biologists in late June, all of whom share a special interest in a normally unexceptional plant.
Unless you are a plant biologist, it’s quite likely you won’t have heard of Arabidopsis thaliana. More commonly known as Thale Cress, this tiny weed grows on roadsides and disturbed land but has no agricultural significance. Just the same, it’s the reason that about 700 scientists and researchers are converging on Turku from June 25 to 29, 2018.
So what’s the attraction of this humble weed? Conference organiser Dr. Michael Wrzaczek of the Viikki Plant Science Centre at the University of Helsinki explains: “It’s a small plant that has no practical value in itself but it serves as a very good model for plant biology research. It has a rapid growth cycle, from seed to full-growth in about 7 to 8 weeks. It makes it a handy tool to address very complex questions. In a crops the same research tasks can take years but Arabidopsis allows us to develop approaches and ideas that we can use in wheat, barley, tomatoes and any other plant, and allows us to work much faster. All the research results with Arabidopsis are directly relevant to any other plant we want to use.”
This year’s International Conference on Arabidopsis Research (ICAR) is being staged at Logomo, Turku’s showpiece conference and cultural venue converted from a former railway workshop. The event is annual and rotates through America, Australasia and Europe, with the last two events held in South Korea and St Louis, Missouri in the USA.
“It has never been held in northern Europe before,” says Wrzaczek. “This time we were offered the chance, and since most of the work in this kind of plant research in Finland uses Arabidopsis it was regarded as a great opportunity to bring the conference here.”
Small is beautiful in Turku
So why Turku? “We wanted to hold the event in a smaller city,” he says. “If people go to a large city for a conference everyone disappears at the end of the day. In a city like Turku it’s easier to meet in a bar or restaurant after a long day and continue talking to colleagues. Smaller cities are more open and interactive. Logomo has this early 20th century industrial charm combined with really new technology in terms of conference organisation, opportunities to give lectures, and meeting rooms of different sizes.”
Wrzaczek praises the flexibility of Turku generally and Logomo in particular. “It was an obvious choice. I helped my previous post-doctoral advisor and now collaborator Professor Jaakko Kangasjärvi when he arranged another, earlier conference in Tampere in central Finland so I have some experience of this.” Professor Kangasjärvi is co-chair with Wrzaczek for ICAR2018.
Although he is from Austria originally, Wrzaczek is the Finnish representative of the international steering committee for Arabidopsis research. “I am also on the board of board of directors for the Multinational Arabidopsis Steering Committee which is a three-year tenure. So I am responsible for summarizing Finnish research for Arabidopsis, in a report for a global audience that we distribute to funding agencies around the globe.”
Opportunity for integration
One Finnish strength in the context of ICAR, he continues, is the unique opportunity to bring together Finland’s considerable expertise in the field and imprint it on the conference, integrating research areas that are traditionally fairly separate.
“Every place has its own charm and character, and we have tried over the last ten years with these meetings to give time for people to appreciate the individual flavour of the conference location. The delegates come from every continent except Antarctica. People from Asia or the US appreciate coming to a historically important little city, and as much as I love the Finnish capital Helsinki, Turku has more history. It’s a small city that you can explore on foot in a day.”
More delegates than usual have signed up for excursions, which include a boat trip in Turku’s beautiful archipelago, and some will choose to remain for the Ruisrock festival that begins on the last day of the conference.
No stress, then? “Yes, some! But I have the support of a very good and experienced team and volunteers from the University of Helsinki and the University of Turku who are happy to offer help whenever I need it. The Turku Convention Bureau at the City of Turku has been very helpful and flexible in helping us to provide what we want. A conference of this size is usually planned so everyone can be in the same lecture room at the same time, but there might be several other meetings or presentations going on at other times. Logomo has made our life easy in this respect. It’s very well designed.”
Further information: icar2018.arabidopsisresearch.org
Michael Wrzaczek´s picture and text: Tim Bird