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Henrik Nilsson
Photo: GU

Henrik Nilsson awarded the Faculty of Science’s 2021 Research Award


The Faculty of Science’s 2021 Research Award is being given to Henrik Nilsson at the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences. He is receiving the award for his innovative research studies on the fungi kingdom using molecular methods.

How did you react to receiving the award?

“It was so great to receive the news that I’d won the award. It isn’t every day that a researcher is cast into the spotlight in this way, and I hope it is seen as a sign that you can achieve success even if you work with basic research, like I do. And even if I, as I’ve said on occasion, ‘only work with fungi’. "

Henrik Nilsson.
Henrik Nilsson.
Photo: GU

"At the same time, I want to emphasise that research is collaborative, and I feel a bit guilty to e the sole focus in in this way. After all, I have a long line of colleagues at the University of Gothenburg and at other universities around the world to thank for our successful projects. I choose to see this as receiving the award as their representative. Everything that leads to PR for fungi and mycology is good, we all agree on that.”

Tell us a bit more about your research?

“Through DNA sequencing of substrates like soils, wood and water, we can find out which fungi actually live there, even if they don’t happen to be observable to the human eye. And it turns out that there are thousands of fungi in a tablespoon of soil from the well trodden playground by Studiegången. Most of these lack scientific names, and nomenclature rules prevent their being named. To be given names, they must only build a sporocarp or fruit body that we can use to identify it in the herbarium, or they must be able to be grown in the lab. But you realise over time that the fungi kingdom doesn’t work like that. A clear majority of fungi do not build a fruit body of any kind that we can identify and cannot be grown in lab settings. But they are still there, and the fact that they don’t care about our rules is hardly any reason to ignore them."

"When I began as a doctoral student, the situation in fungi research was a bit chaotic, to say the least. Hundreds of fungi were only known by their DNA sequences, and there was no standardised or clear way to communicate which of them had been found and where. Slowly, I was able to resolve several of these problems and unresolved questions resulting from the wake of DNA sequencing."

"Some of the issues resulting from DNA sequencing are also of a more policy nature. For example, is it time to amend the nomenclature rules? Is it reasonable to only be able to provide legal protection from land development for named species now that we see that the unnamed group vastly dominates? And even though it is easy to cooperate with DNA sequencing, do we really encourage interdisciplinary expertise to squeeze out every possible drop of information from our datasets? I’ve become increasingly more interested in these types of question over time.”

What impact can your research have in the future?

“I have been lucky to see much of my research translated into actual use relatively quickly. Our nomenclature system and several of our software tools have become somewhat of standards in the field. They are used daily to achieve precision when communicating what fungi have been found and where. Sometimes I spend a few minutes flipping through the day’s new citations. They can be for such things ranging from the intestinal canal of pets and fungus spores in dust on the International Space Station to microbial growths on cave paintings. That’s when I feel that I’ve actually contributed to achieving something significant. You could say my research bears fruit when others answer their research questions.”

Award explanation

Henrik Nilsson studies the fungi kingdom using molecular methods. He was quick to see the paradigm shift face approaching mycology as more and more fungi species and fungi groups were detected through DNA sequencing of soil and wood but without observable structures by humans. Together with colleagues, he developed a DNA reference database (UNITE) to ensure the just classification of these fungi in the fungi kingdom.

Today, UNITE is a standard tool within mycology, and the botanical code seems to be headed toward a reworking based on UNITE’s principles. In addition to scientific breakthroughs, Henrik’s research has led to new tools and applications. His high-quality scholarly output is interdisciplinary and unique, and includes around 130 articles and around 25,000 citations, making him one of the most cited researchers at the University of Gothenburg year after year.

It is not just his outstanding research that makes him an excellent candidate to receive the Faculty's Research Award. His collegiality and enthusiasm as a teacher, course director, supervisor and communicator of science are also greatly appreciated.

About the Research Award

The award recognises development of a research specialisation that significantly contributes to novelty in the faculty’s research. The award recipient receives a diploma and a research grant of SEK 250,000. The award ceremony will be held on 2 December.