The growth of the human population is placing
ever-increasing stress on the environment because
natural resources are being used at an unsustainable
rate. In the decades to come, plants will play a
significant role in easing the major challenges facing
humans. Plants will provide more food, renewable
sources of energy, and pharmaceuticals. But the
harnessing of plants for the benefit of humans requires
a much greater understanding of plant genomes and plant
A recent analysis of papers in plant biology highlighted the huge
output of papers by the Department of Plant Systems Biology at Ghent
University in Belgium. According toEssential Science
Indicators from Thomson
Reuters, the university ranks at #31 worldwide among institutions in
Plant & Animal Science.
To learn more about the scientific
mission of this department, ScienceWatch.com's
European correspondent, Simon Mitton, talked to its
Director, Professor Dirk Inzé, who is himself one of the
most-cited and influential researchers in this field, and has
been named a Highly Cited Researcher in Plant & Animal
How did you become so deeply interested in plant growth
I am a biologist by education, having graduated in 1979 in zoology at the
Ghent University, following which I received my Ph.D. for a thesis on the
mechanisms by which Agrobacterium tumefaciens causes the
proliferation of plant cells. In 1990, I was appointed Research Director of
the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) at the Ghent
Joint Laboratory, where I initiated extensive research programs on the cell
cycle and cell death in plants. Luckily for me I had the privilege of
working with some of the giants in plant molecular biology, Prof. Jeff
Schell and Prof. Marc Van Montagu, from the late 1970s.
You already have several awards: the Körber
Stiftung Prize back in 1994 and the Franqui Prize for 2005. And the
Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium has elected you Fellow. But in
addition to these academic achievements you have been a champion of
technology transfer in the biological sciences.
"The press is full of stories of
food shortages and rocketing prices. If food
production is to increase, then plant
bioscience has an enormous
Yes, in 1998, I founded the biotechnological research company CropDesign,
currently one of the most active players in high-throughput analysis of
plant genes in cereals. In 2006, together with VTT (Finland), I set up
Solucel, a biotech company dealing with the production of pharmaceuticals
in plants. In 1999, I was appointed Deputy Scientific Director of the
Department of Plant Systems Biology of the VIB, the Flanders Institute for
Biotechnology, and became Director of the department in July 2002.
My ambition as Director is to make the Department of Plant Systems Biology
a center of excellence with emphasis on systems biology of plant growth and
What is the history of the Department?
The Department is grounded in fundamental science. Research in the early
days focused on microbial genetics, such as the search for the
tumor-inducing principle (TIP) in A. tumefaciens. The laboratory
achieved its first international breakthrough in the mid-'70s with the
discovery that the TIP resided on an extrachromosomal element: the Ti
Subsequently, the close collaboration between the teams of Jeff Schell and
Marc Van Montagu created the fertile environment for combining genetic and
molecular approaches to unravel the molecular processes involved in the
transformation of plant cells by Agrobacterium.
These research efforts culminated in the early '80s with the breakthrough
discovery that the gene transfer system of the bacterium could be applied
to plants: we realized that this system could be used to genetically modify
Plant engineering became the driving force for the rapid growth of our
laboratory. The original emphasis on plant engineering has been now
replaced by a focus on systems approaches to the study of basic biological
processes in plants, hence the change of name to Plant Systems Biology.
Any visitor to the biological sciences campus you have
here in Ghent will find the collaboration between research scientists
and industry quite striking.
That linkage is very important to us. Our research would be pointless
unless we can benefit society with the most efficient form of delivery. By
working with agroscience companies we are building on a long tradition.
Back in the 1980s we had a corporation, Plant Genetic Systems, later
acquired by Bayer (now Bayer Crop Science). They are still on campus and so
are BASF Plant Sciences.
Another of our success stories is DevGen, established in 1995 to find new
drug targets for plant disease. They found a way to make plants more
resistant to invasion by nematodes and aphids. DevGen is now a large
corporation with 150 employees.
Together, these companies and the Department form the largest plant
biotechnology campus in Europe. The partnership model we have developed
here is being followed in a number of locations in Europe.
How would you describe the present mission of the
We have a dual mission actually, training and research. Our students are
immersed in top-class scientific research. We take our standards really
seriously: we require the impact rating of our papers to be 5 or greater.
This policy is contributing to the enormous output of high-impact papers.
In judging the performance of Principal Investigators, the metric we use
includes the number of high-impact papers, as well as the value and quality
of industrial contracts, license agreements, patents, etc. We reward our
researchers for translating laboratory results into industrial
Our funding is through three channels. About 50% is from public funding
that is directed at universities and research institutes. About 35% is
international competitive funding; the European Commission is an important
partner in this respect. Finally, about 15% is from industry.
"The partnership model we have
developed here is being followed in a number
of locations in Europe."
Last year the Flanders government decided to attract high-profile
scientists to this area of Belgium by establishing a competitive fund to
pay good salaries and research-support costs. The winner of this initiative
secured six million euros over five years, and he joined our department.
How important to society are the results in the
It is clear that plant research work is of prime importance for increasing
food production. The press is full of stories of food shortages and
rocketing prices. If food production is to increase, then plant bioscience
has an enormous role. The core mission of our department is to understand
the plant science that will enable larger production in a sustainable
Right now in Europe we have big problems because the public and the
political class have not really supported the application of plant genetic
engineering to production. Politicians need to take a firmer line on this.
Genetically modified (GM) food can lead to significant increases in
quantity and quality.
In the UK, the situation with chickenfeed is, frankly, ridiculous. The
chicken industry in the UK is not allowed to feed GM soya. That decision is
making the industry totally uncompetitive. It is wrong to limit the food
resources for animals. Attitudes of this kind are, unfortunately,
widespread in Europe. Eventually price pressure will lead to a U-turn on
the place of plant bioscience.
Plant biotech can really help in the less-developed countries where people
have to spend half their income on food: a doubling of production would
make an enormous contribution. Africa needs drought-resistant and
disease-resistant strains. The political climate in Europe is really
unfortunate when we could do so much for food production in Africa.
My final question is a comment. Looking at the content
of the highly cited papers, I am impressed by the sheer breadth of the
science being undertaken here.
Well, we do have an enormous agenda. As I have said already, our concrete
goal is to create—note that I say create—improved crops for
sustainable development. We believe that genetic improvement can be
accomplished either by molecular breeding or genetic engineering. Many of
the required tools still need to be forged. We are studying the mechanisms
that control cell division and organ growth.
The spread of topics in our papers arises because we are contributing to
the creation of a sustainable world through research on yield stability
(stress tolerance), plant-derived pharmaceuticals, nitrogen fixation, wood
formation, and bioenergy. An important component of this activity is
focused on the transfer of knowledge from plant models to productive crops.
Plants have immense potential for building a sustainable
Department of Plant Systems Biology
Professor Dirk Inzé, Bsc Ph.D., Director