Fascinated by the resilience of seeds

Published on
April 12, 2022

Seed research has long had a stuffy image, but Leónie Bentsink has been demonstrating for years how fascinating seeds are as a research subject. On Thursday 7 April, she held her inaugural lecture as a professor holding a personal chair in the Plant Physiology chair group. For Bentsink, who began her teaching career in junior general secondary education (MAVO), her professorship crowns a remarkable academic career.

Such an academic career was still a long way off when Bentsink successively completed junior general secondary education (MAVO), senior secondary vocational education (MBO), and higher vocational education (HBO). "I don't come from an academic background, and I have always been guided by what I like. This led me to higher vocational education, where I studied Plant Biotechnology. I did my final project in the Labratory of Genetics at WUR. Professor Maarten Koornneef was impressed by how I conducted my research and offered me a PhD position. At that time, that was still possible without an MSc degree."

Leónie Bentsink
Leónie Bentsink

Sprouting after 2000 years of rest

She remembers her first project well: "I started to research the influence of natural adaptations on seed germination. Gradually, I found it became more and more interesting. I am still captivated by the resilience of seeds, which can delay germination if the conditions are not favourable. By observing, for example, how much nitrate is in the soil, a seed knows whether or not it makes sense to germinate now. It then deploys certain mechanisms that keep it dormant. If there is little competition, then other mechanisms come into play to trigger germination. I find the fact that a seed can measure its environment fascinating. Equally fascinating is that seeds can be stored for a very long time. Seeds found at archaeological sites in the Judean desert are still able to germinate after two thousand years."

DOG1 gene

During her PhD research, she discovered that the DOG1 gene is a major regulator of germination. After this discovery, Bentsink focussed on other DOG genes. The project proposal she wrote for this was honoured with a Veni grant in 2005. She left Wageningen to continue her research at Utrecht. There she built up her own network and was able to form her own group. With this group, she returned to Wageningen in 2009: "My feeling was that this research would be better embedded in the laboratory infrastructure here."

mRNA as messengers

In 2013 Bentsink received a Vidi grant for her project proposal on research into the negative correlation between germination and the storability of seeds, a finding made in her lab years before.

She has been working there since 1 February 2022 as a professor holding a personal chair based on her exceptional scientific achievements. In 2019, Bentsink completed a hat-trick by winning a Vici grant for Seeds4Ever, a project that will run until 2025. This project aims to examine the influence of mRNA on the shelf life of seeds. This is a theme that continues to fascinate her: "We know that the composition of mRNA molecules in seeds changes depending on the environment in which the seed developed. We are now investigating the right composition for germination. That is a big technical challenge, but fortunately I work with a bunch of tenacious PhD students and postdocs."

Accompanying people

She says that it is perhaps the contact with staff members and students that gives her the greatest satisfaction at work: "A successful project proposal or an accepted scientific paper gives short-lived euphoria, but guiding people in their development gives me energy. Accompanying a recently graduated Master's student who does not know which direction to take and who, one day, will leave here as a self-confident research associate, is something I find invaluable."

She has never been a career planner and will never be one: "For now, there are plenty of challenges, both in research and in educational innovation. To be honest, I've hardly had time to think about the future lately. During COVID, my group gained eight people. All these people had to find their feet while I was working at home. I think it is a miracle that everything is going so well. It seems people have the same resilience as seeds."

“To germinate or not to germinate” was the title of professor Leónie Bentsink’s lecture on 7 April in the main auditorium of Wageningen University & Research. In it, she discussed the decision of a seed to germinate or not. After her inauguration, her speech can be found in the online library.