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Ghent University, Department of Plant Systems Biology Ghent University, Department of Plant Systems Biology
A featured institution selection from Essential Science IndicatorsSM

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 molecular processes.

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 to Essential 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,'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 Science.

How did you become so deeply interested in plant growth and development?

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 role."

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 development.

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 plasmid.

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 plants.

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 department?

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 applications.

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 most-cited papers?

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 manner.

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 world.

Ghent University
Department of Plant Systems Biology
Professor Dirk Inzé, Bsc Ph.D., Director
Ghent, Belgium

Additional Information:
  Dirk Inze, the Director of the Department of Plant Systems Biology at Ghent University is featured in

Keywords: plant genomes, plant molecular processes, plant growth, plant development, genetically modified plants, research collaborations, agroscience companies.

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Institutional Interviews : 2008 : 2008 Aug - Ghent University, Department of Plant Systems Biology