Estonian plant and animals sciences came to life in the 17th century as parts of medical and geographical studies at the University of Tartu.
Perhaps the most famous early naturalists in Estonia was Karl Ernst von Baer (1792-1876). Interested in zoology, botany, anatomy, anthropology and the geography of the Arctic, von Baer discovered the mammalian ovum and laid the foundations of modern embryology.
After Estonian research institutions went through major reorganisation in the 1990s, the University of Tartu and the Estonian University of Life Sciences became entrenched as the country’s main centres of plant and animal sciences.
According to Thomson Reuters Essential Science Indicators, plant and animal sciences are the most successful research fields in Estonia, exceeding the world average citation rate by more than 30%. Both of the above universities have reached the top 1% level of highly-cited institutions.
Centres of Excellence and Centres of Competence
In Tartu, there are two centres of excellence active in plant and animal sciences.
The Centre of Excellence in Environmental Adaptation (ENVIRON) seeks to understand the mechanisms of environmental adaptation, and feedback loops between the plant and ecosystem adaptation and climate change. It has several research groups, such as plant physiology and biosphere-atmosphere interactions, plant signal research, plant-pathogen interactions, plant ecophysiology, landscape ecology and ecotechnology. Professor Ülo Niinemets is the first Estonian scientist to receive the European Research Council’s advanced grant for the project “Stress-Induced Plant Volatiles in Biosphere-Atmosphere System“.
Scientists at the Estonian University of Life Sciences, the University of Tartu and the Competence Centre for Reproductive Medicine and Biology have been very successful in transgenic animal research — the first transgenic calf carrying a human growth hormone gene, was born in Estonia. In addition, researchers at the Estonian University of Life Sciences are focusing on insect physiology, the population genetics, dynamics and genesis of bird communities, and the breeding and migration ecology of several birds species as well as on veterinary medicine and animal production research. Important for Estonia – a country of thousand lakes – is the research at the Centre of Limnology.
The Centre of Excellence Frontiers in Biodiversity Research (FIBIR) explores reasons behind the variable biodiversity in ecosystems with a different history and human impact. Led by Martin Zobel, FIBIR unites six research teams that aim to elucidate general trends in the variation of biological and functional diversity in ecosystems under different human pressure.
Scientists at Tallinn University study the temporal-spatial impact of natural and anthropogenic processes on ecosystems, including wetlands and coastal area. Researchers at the Tallinn University of Technology study plants on molecular level: defence mechanisms of plants and their cytoskeleton, plant virology, genetic engineering of plants, including production of novel proteins in plants.
Estonian Crop Research Institute in Jõgeva carries out mostly applied studies in plant biology for the development of efficient and environmentally friendly agrotechnologies, plant protection, plant health, biodiversity and plant breeding. The institute runs the Estonian gene bank for seed-propagated crops.
The Estonian Environmental Observatory is a project for the monitoring and experimental analysis of flora, fauna and their environment. It runs field stations all over Estonia, including a new station for measuring ecosystem-atmosphere relations (SMEAR).
Plant biology infrastructure incorporates experimental fields and gardens, greenhouses, automated growth chambers, complexes for monitoring gas exchange, photosynthetic activity and plant stress. In addition, animal scientists have access to vivarium at the University of Tartu, an experimental dairy farm and large experimental animal facilities at the Estonian University of Life Sciences.