A trip to Estonia

Recently, I have participated in a scientific conference in Estonia. It was devoted to plant abiotic stress and proved quite engaging. Additionally, I had an occasion to take a brief look at the country.
The flight from Stockholm was a real pleasure. Just 45 minutes in air and a nice view of the sea and land below. The coast of Estonia looks much smoother than its Swedish counterpart but I spotted a few islands. While on the plane, I was reading an article from Wikipedia devoted to the country. I was moved by what I learned from it. We, Poles, tend to think that history treated us badly. I think we should read up more on countries such as Estonia. They had it rough since the time of the Vikings, and it would seem that the only good times in the country history were in between World Wars and after the fall of Soviet Union. The particularly tragic part of their history took place during the soviet reign. At the beginning of WWII they were invaded by the Red Army “protecting” them from Nazi threat. This was, as in case of Poland, accompanied by disposal of politically suspicious elements – by means of mass executions and deportations. Later, when the war broke out between Soviets and Nazis, the only sensible choice was to ally with Germans, but according to Wikipedia, Estonians were quickly disillusioned with their liberators and chose to fight with the Soviets in the ranks of the Finnish army. Tragically, when Germans started to withdraw from Estonia, the government announced a mobilization, and attempted to stop the Red Army. What a desperate decision! It is easy to predict what followed this futile attempt. As a result of political incorporation and pacification of Estonia 200 000 people were killed, deported or fled the country. And Estonia had a population of only 1.5 milllion! Their fate was in a lot of ways similar to ours, but magnified by the fact of the incorporation into the Soviet Union (SU). Interestingly, communists promoted migration from SU to Estonia, especially to Tallin. This led to a current tense political situation since 40% of Tallin's population are Russians.
The ride from Tallin to Tartu, where the conference took place was quite comfortable. The land is flat as a pancake, and seems to be less populous than the typical Polish countryside. Tartu, on the other hand, looks quite familiar. It is a town with a population of 100 000 with a mixture of old, frequently beautiful, houses and new buildings. It has a big shopping mall and a nice hotel. I definitely cannot complain.
A monument of a pig in front of Tartu's old market

During the conference I met prof. Simon Gilroy and his wife Sarah Swanson - an American couple from the University of Wisconsin. They work on mechanical sensing in plants. I found his talk on that subject to be the most spectacular presentation of the conference, largely due to the amazing microscopy pictures and animations that he showed. The most interesting findings made by Gilroy's group regard the presence of pH gradient pulses along the length of a growing root. They also work on the signaling cascade initiated by the root hitting an obstacle. I felt almost like sitting at the cinema when watching this talk. I learned from Sarah that ATP can be used as a signaling molecule outside the cell, a fact I was not familiar with. She also recommended a book on microscopy techniques “Plant microtechniques and microscopy” by Steven E. Ruzin. I need this knowledge desperately, given my poor skills in this area.
Another interesting talk was given by prof. Teun Munnik from the Netherlands. He was talking about phosphatidylinositol 4-monophosphate (PIP) metabolism – and presented data showing that PIP3 is not a signaling molecule in plants. Plant biologists often assume that if something is valid for animal models it also holds true for plants. He presented a nice example to the contrary. This resulted in many speakers having to correct their schemes. I also enjoyed a talk by Israeli professor on the abscisic acid responsive gene (ASR1) that is actically transcribed during drought resistance and is thought to play a role in protecting the plant during this type of biotic stress. Interestingly the protein encoded by this gene is in its native state disorganized and acts as a chaperon. Zn cations facilitate rearrangements of its structure so it can bind to DNA and act as a transcription factor. During the coffee break I asked him about the role of compatible solutes. They have low molecular mass and are produced during drought. One example of such a molecule is proline. The theory is that they help in the transfer of the water to the cell during drought by lowering the water potential of the cell. The experimental data do not seem to confirm it. I was explaining to students that compatible solutes help stabilize proteins in such conditions. To my relief he confirmed it and added that in his opinion the main reason for their existence is as temporary nitrogen storage. Anyway, his presentation was a nice piece of biochemistry in an otherwise physiology heavy program.
The most important presentations for me were devoted to guard cells signaling and were given by prof. Rainer Hedrich and my boss Dr. Maria Israelsson-Nordström. I was especially keen on listening to prof. Hedrich talk. It was a well executed piece – one could easily see that he was one of the most prominent scientists at the conference. His group is working with ABA and CO2 signaling using a clever and state of the art biophysical approach. The talk was very educational although I think that he wants the biology to be simpler than it really is.
Another interesting presentation was given by a German researcher that makes mathematical models of carbohydrate fluxes in CO2-fixing cells. His group used literature data on enzyme kinetics and metabolites concentration to create models. The results showed that the model agrees well with values observed experimentally. Interestingly, they correctly predicted that starch is not decomposed when photosynthesis is active.
There were two more interesting talks – one by an indian PhD working in Czech Republic – he showed some interesting applications of chlorophyll fluorescence imaging in visualizing pathogen infection of the leaves. The second one was a talk by Dr. Seth Davis who works on circadian clock. This was the second best presentation of the whole conference.
During evening banquet I had an opportunity to talk with a professor from Netherlands - Hendrik Poorter. He is an ecophysiologist working with metadata analysis from different field experiments. He described his approach as phenomics – broad range analysis of the phenotypes. We talked about molecular biology vs. ecology, computer modeling and even Linux and Open Access publishing. Prof. Poorter told me a very entertaining story. It concerned the results of his lab experiments vs. the behavior of plants in the field. The transgenic plants were found to have high water use efficiency during experiments under controlled lab experiments. The enthusiastic researchers decided to make a final test in the field. To their utter astonishments; the control, non-modified plants had better use of water under such circumstances. How was it possible? Control plants grew faster than their water conserving GM cousins. They wasted the water - that's true. But on the later stage their well expanded leaves shaded much larger area, thus preventing water evaporation from the soil.
After the conference we went on a tour around Tartu's Old Town which I think is quite lovely and finally we had a festive dinner closing the conference. The restaurant was placed within old fortifications, the so called gunpowder cellar and was quite nice. Especially, considering that there was a live Estonian country band that played loud music at the same time as the Eurovision song contest was in full swing. Overall that was quite an enjoyable experience.

A view from the city walls

Next day we returned to Tallin and I had a chance to see the old town for few hours. Tallin reminds me of Warsaw in the sense that there is a new business part of the town with shiny skyscrapers and an Old Town. All of this among a sea of old post Soviet buildings. The Old Town is enclosed by city walls not unlike Visby. A lot of the buildings are from the XVI-XVII century and the inhabitants try to create a feel of a medieval hanseatic port. I liked this quite a bit. For me, coming from a Catholic country, it was quite an interesting experience to see protestant churches next to an orthodox cathedral. I believe that anyone that is into history would find Tallin an interesting place to visit if only for a day or two.
To summarize, I must say that it was fun to participate in the scientific conference in Estonia. I would probably be happier to see more things – For example I missed the KGB museum but it was a good experience both in scientific and sightseeing aspect of it. And most importantly, they do have Kvas in Estonia!
P.S. If you are interested, please see a gallery of my photos from Estonia.