As highlighted in our previous blog post, food and pharmaceutical industries could utilize birch- and spruce-derived hemicelluloses and lignin in future. In addition to their promising emulsion stabilizing properties, the fiber- and polyphenol-rich birch and spruce extracts could be good for our gut health. Therefore, the effects of wood-derived extracts on gut health are the focus of the GOOD project. This project has recently received funding from the Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation. Doctoral student Emma Kynkäänniemi, postdoctoral researcher Maarit Lahtinen, university lecturer Anne-Maria Pajari and assistant professor Kirsi Mikkonen form a good project team!
A group of rats got an exciting addition to their diets: polyphenol-rich birch extract. The diet was tasty and all the rats gained weight normally. Next, we will investigate the effects of the feeding period on gut health, analyzing, for example, the gut microbiota and their metabolites from the fecal samples of the rats. The results of the GOOD project will bring us many steps closer to the goal of transforming wood into food.
The FoMSci group leader, Kirsi Mikkonen, received the prestigious and extremely competitive European Research Council Consolidator Grant (ERC-CoG) for her innovative and challenging project entitled: “Green Route to Wood-Derived Janus Particles for Stabilized Interfaces – PARTIFACE”. The project is about developing a novel type of Janus particles, that are bi-facial particles where the two “faces” of the particle have opposite properties. Imagine an apple, half red and sweet and half green and sour, that is a Janus apple! Kirsi will develop these new particles using renewable resources. Kirsi’s Janus particles will be able to stabilize emulsions from a physical and chemical perspective, meaning that the emulsions will look and smell the same even after months of storage.
The splendid news came in a very cryptic email from the Council. “I got the ERC grant” Kirsi said staring amazed at her phone. The rumor spread in the corridor and everybody started exulting and congratulating Kirsi. This year only five researchers in the whole Finland received this important grant worth two million euros. Kirsi’s ERC project is the first granted to the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry of the University of Helsinki.
Kudos to Kirsi from all your research group. We are extremely proud of you!
Happy faces at the party for the recently funded Assist. Prof. Kirsi Mikkonen’s ERC-CoG Partiface project.
ERC cake designed and prepared by Ida Nikkilä
Our previous writing and networking retreat in October 2018 was such an excellently productive and positive experience that again in October 2019, the Food Materials Science Research Group, reinforced with Vice Dean of Research, Prof. Maija Tenkanen and her Carbohydrate Enzymology and Chemistry Group, and the Aalto Protein Team, led by Prof. Emma Master, spent three days at the Lammi Biological Station of the University of Helsinki.
The classroom was reserved for quiet working, where we reached an amazing flow experience for writing. Group meetings, face-to-face or via Skype, and many scientific discussions were held outside of the classroom. Fabio introduced us a modern idea about writing together an article in 24 hours, which we experimented. We enjoyed lively conversations, did a hiking trip to the nearby Evo forest area, picked mushrooms, and tasted them as an evening snack. Of course we enjoyed also delicious meals at breakfast, lunch, coffee breaks and dinner. The food was wonderful, and we could focus all our energy in writing. Evening sauna by the Pääjärvi lake was relaxing, and swimming in the fresh cold water kept our minds clear and sharp.
Aerogels are ultra-light but very strong materials. They are studied for example as thermal insulators, controlled release for drugs, and templates for cell cultures for tissue engineering.
The European Union has granted funding for AERoGELS, a network of aerogel researchers with 36 participating countries. Finland is represented in AERoGELS by assistant professor Kirsi Mikkonen from the University of Helsinki and associate professor Henrikki Liimatainen from the University of Oulu.
AERoGELS is one of the EU-funded COST Actions and it provides funding for networking.
”Our meetings are scientific seminars where we present our research findings to other partners, learn about their work, and have the possibility to plan for potential future projects together. AERoGELS provides all aerogel researchers in Finland an opportunity to network with international experts, collaborate, and benefit from infrastructures offered by the partners”, says Kirsi Mikkonen.
She says that one of the greatest benefits of COST Actions is the funding provided for “Short Term Scientific Missions”, i.e., research visits between partner countries. “It was a wonderful opportunity for me already during my doctoral studies to visit and conduct part of my research at top international laboratories. Later, I have encouraged the doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers of my group to use this great advantage provided by COST Actions.”
The news in Finnish:
The Nordic Forest Research (SNS) –funded HEMISURF project had an excellent kick start, when master student Mari Brusletten from NMBU, Norway, visited the University of Helsinki in March 2019. Mari says:
“I was really happy that I got the opportunity to visit the Food Materials Science Research Group and to learn from their expertise on emulsions. This was a new field for me since I am working mainly on fermentation and downstream processing of yeast. During my stay at the University of Helsinki, I used mannans from spruce that I brought with me from Norway, and made emulsions with these. I observed and analyzed the emulsions over time using different instruments to find out their stability. Thank you to Mamata Bhattarai for helping me with the experiments, I learned a lot! I also got to see the city of Helsinki, a city that I had never visited before. Good food, nice buildings and attractions, and a lot of shopping facilities. I enjoyed my stay. Thank you.”
In aqueous paints, alkyd binders are already largely bio-based. The next step towards more sustainable paints is to use bio-based stabilizers to emulsify alkyds, so that they can be applied in spreadable and flowable paints and coatings. Within the former Tekes (currently Business Finland) -funded “Novel biomass-based solutions for technical emulsions (BITE)” project (2016−2018), we tested wood hemicelluloses (spruce gum and birch gum) as alkyd emulsifiers with promising results. Please read our full text open access article here: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.indcrop.2019.03.017.
Ava Mikkonen, at age 9, kindly tested our paint prototypes, which only consisted of water, alkyds, hemicelluloses, and pigments, without any other additives such as drying control agents. Her beautiful painting illustrates a landscape with two mountain peaks.
Doctoral student Verena Wiedenmann from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and Max Rubner-Institut in Germany visits the Food Materials Science Research Group from August until mid-December 2018:
‘I am super happy that I had the opportunity to visit the gorgeous city of Helsinki along with learning from the expertise of the Food Materials Science Research Group and meeting all those nice people. I am a PhD-student from Germany and work on the interactions of solid lipid nanoparticles with protein and their influence on protein gel properties. At the University of Helsinki, I produced protein films with incorporated lipid nanoparticles and emulsifiers. I characterized these films regarding their barrier and mechanical properties. During my stay, I learned a lot about the different characterization methods and benefited from the knowledge the people have here. I also got a glimpse of the work of the other group members, as it was very interesting to see what they do in their research. I had the luck to spend 3 ‘writing days’ in Lammi, where I experienced the Finnish sauna and cold-lake-swimming together with a great working ambience. I am really enjoying my time here!’
“We are excited to start our new collaborative project ROCK (Role of lignin Carbohydrate complexes as Key to stable emulsions) together with Assoc. Prof. Martin Lawoko from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden, and the new group member, postdoctoral researcher Danila Morais de Carvalho. We are looking for excellent synergy and highly interesting results! The project is funded by Tandem Forest Values, a bilateral research program, which was a gift to 100-year-old Finland in 2017. Vi tackar Sverige för den fina gåvan!”
FoMSci Group Leader, Assist. Prof. Kirsi Mikkonen and University Lecturer Maarit Lahtinen visited KTH, Stockholm, in October 2018 for the kick-off meeting of the ROCK project.
Food Materials Science Research Group, reinforced with Vice Dean of Research, Prof. Maija Tenkanen, and Aalto Protein Team, led by Prof. Emma Master, spent an excellently productive three days writing and networking retreat at the Lammi Biological Station of the University of Helsinki. In the classroom reserved for quiet working, you could only hear breathing and computer tapping. Many fruitful scientific discussions and group meetings were held outside of the writing room. We also enjoyed delicious breakfast, lunch, coffee breaks, dinner, and evening snack, with lively
conversations about food, carbohydrates, cellulose, molecular structures, chemical bonding, enzymes, mushrooms, etc. etc. etc.
For refreshment, we had a sauna by the Pääjärvi lake, and some used the opportunity to swim in the fresh water, with sauna and also without, in both mornings at sunrise. We also made a hiking trip to the nearby Evo forest area and picked mushrooms.
The FoMSci Group Leader, Assist. Prof. Kirsi Mikkonen made a research visit of three weeks to the University of Toronto (UofT), Canada. The purpose of the visit was networking with UofT researchers, building up collaboration, and developing new research ideas. UofT warmly welcomed the visitor and provided great facilities, including an office with a wonderful view to the famous landmark of Toronto, the high rising CN Tower. Together with the host researchers, Kirsi made preliminary experiments in the laboratory and exchanged ideas with experts in various scientific fields. The best ideas are born when they are viewed from different perspectives! The visit was pleasant, efficient, and fruitful – we wish to encourage all researchers to make exchange visits if possible.