Historical highlights of the Laboratory of Microbiology; celebrating 100 years

Historical highlights of the Laboratory of Microbiology; celebrating 100 years

Wageningen University & Research is celebrating 100 years of scientific progress in exploring microbes for the quality of life. The first Professor of Microbiology, Nicolaas L. Söhngen, started his work on anaerobic microbiology in Wageningen in 1917. This provided the foundation for the Laboratory of Microbiology, which now has over 100 scientists and supporting staff members with a highly successful science portfolio.

  • Prelude: bacteria interact with their environment Clover has been used for centuries to enrich farmland; modern organic farmers use it as an effective alternative to chemical fertilizers. Martinus Beijerinck was, in 1888, the first to identify that its nitrogen-holding capacity results from symbiosis between the plant and a rod-shaped bacterium present in the plant’s nodules, Bacillus radicicola now known as Rhizobium meliloti.
    Prelude: Martinus Beijerinck
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  • 1917 – 1934; connecting science and industry Science becomes significantly more valuable when it has practical applications. In his inauguration lecture, Prof. Nicolaas L. Söhngen led the way in acknowledging the importance of this, not only making a strong casefor exchanging research results with industry through scientific dialogue, but even exchanging research materials for advice. Söhngen benefitted from having a dedicated research facility, designed in the characteristic Amsterdam Style, which was opened in 1922.
    1917 – 1934; connecting science and industry
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  • 1934 – 1955; closing the cycle Closing the cycles of elements is a key factor in today’s attempts to establish a balanced circular ecology and bioeconomy. At his inauguration, in 1934, Prof. Jan Smit was the first to identify the need to close these cycles. He supervised PhD fellow Eppe Mulder’s research on the impact of copper on microbial and plant growth. Later on, Eppe Mulder succeeded Jan Smit as Professor and Chair of Microbiology.
    Highlight 2: Prof. Jan Smit, 1934-1955
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  • 1956 – 1981; nitrogen cycle revisited and applied Investigating and managing the nitrogen cycle in soil and water was the key focus for Prof. Eppe Mulder’s research. He had established the essential role of molybdenum in the nitrogen-fixing capacity of Rhizobium and continued, together with his PhD fellows, research on how plants and rhizobium bacteria collaborate and communicate in acquiring their nitrogen-fixing capacity.
    Highlight 3: Prof. Eppe Mulder 1956-1981
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  • 1960 – 2002; technical Microbiology: catalysing the chemical industry How to use bacterial enzymes in the production of amino acids, epoxides and other valuable components for the chemical industry was a key theme in the research by Hans Veldkamp – the first Professor of Technical Microbiology in Wageningen – and his successors Chris Bulder and Jan de Bont. Prof. Bulder focussed mainly on continuous and other fermentation technologies to study industrial microbial processes.
    Highlight 4: Prof. Hans Veldkamp, Prof. Chris Bulder and Prof. Jan de Bont, 1960-2002
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  • 1982 – 1992; legacies reconsidered The appointment of Prof. Alexander Zehnder increased the focus on anaerobic and environmental microbiology. During his PhD work he isolated the acetate-utilizing, methane-forming Methanothrix soehngenii; an important discovery as, in most environments, the formation of methane is the final step in the decomposition of biomass. This research was renewed by Mike Jetten, who obtained a cum laude PhD in 1989 and provided insight into the enzymatic and molecular details of this acetoclastic methanogenesis. Prof. Jetten now holds the Chair of Microbiology in Nijmegen.
    Highlight 5: Prof. Alexander Zehnder, 1982-1992
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  • 1988 – 1995; extremophiles do it their way Why and how do some microbes survive, and even flourish, at temperatures above 100˚C? This intriguing issue was studied while Prof. Willem de Vos held the (then new) part-time Chair in Bacterial Genetics. Earlier, De Vos was responsible for pioneering research on the molecular genetics of lactic-acid bacteria at NIZO food research in Ede, where he also acquired molecular-level insight into the structure-function relations of proteins.
    Highlight 6: Prof. Willem de Vos, 1988-1995 Bacterial Genetics
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  • 1992 – 2017; living off each other Bacteria closely collaborate in communities, so why not scientists? Perhaps observing bacteria for so long inspired Prof. Willem de Vos as a chair to expand the Laboratory of Microbiology to around 100 scientists. He started 3 complementary research groups - Microbial Physiology, Molecular Ecology, and Bacterial Genetics, all led by personal professors – and used a series of inter-disciplinary PhD positions to foster collaboration between the groups.
    Highlight 7: Prof. Willem de Vos, 1992-2017
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  • Signature; intestinal Microbiology - the case of Akkermansia Is a microorganism that utilizes intestinal mucus important? Yes: because it is the cornerstone of the personalized microbiome, now recognized as key in health and disease. Pioneering insight in this area was delivered via a new research line on intestinal microbiology started by Prof. Willem de Vos, when appointed as Professor of Microbiology in 1995, and Dr Erwin Zoetendal the first of a profusion of PhD students to study this rapidly- emerging new field. They discovered what is now known as the personalised and stable microbiome, showed the first relationship between intestinal microbes and human genetics, and pioneered the characteristics of the upper intestinal tract and mucosal and colonic microbes.
    Signature Highlight 1: Willem M. de Vos
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  • Signature; bacterial immunity and genome editing Fast and convenient genome editing of micro-organisms, crops, or even human cells, is within reach due to the discovery of the CRISPR-Cas system. Key to this application has been the biochemical characterization of this bacterial immune system that provides protection against foreign DNA. This was initiated by the pioneering work in the group of Prof John van der Oost and also involved Stan Brouns, who received his cum laude PhD degree in 2007, by showing the impact of CRISPR-Cas on bacteriophage infections
    Signature Highlight 2: John van der Oost
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  • Signature; we all teach Education is a cornerstone of the Laboratory of Microbiology, which prides itself in developing students for the field of microbiology. Since the appointment of Nicolaas Söhngen, 100 years ago, this holds not only for scientists and academics but also for PhD students and support staff. The basic Microbiology course, its practicals and lectures, have become legendary in the organisation, exemplified in the idea that, student or teacher, “you never walk alone”.
    Signature; we all teach
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