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.

He believed that bacteria should be studied in the context of their environment – a philosophy that has formed the foundation of later microbiology research in Wageningen. Examples of this approach include characterizing bacteria in plant nodules, isolating bacteria that have syntrophic relations, and studying intestinal microbes that interact with their host.

Plant viruses

Martinus Beijerinck was also the first to demonstrate the existence of plant viruses. He described the tobacco mosaic virus, infamous for causing mosaic disease in tobacco, tomato and many other plants – a discovery that made him renowned the world over.

After his departure to Delft, he went on to supervise a promising PhD candidate, Nicolaas L. Söhngen, who investigated how microbes produce and consume hydrogen and methane. This work underpins contemporary anaerobic microbiology and Söhngen became the first person to teach Microbiology in Wageningen. In the honor of Professor Söhngen the Soehngen Institute for Anaerobic Microbiology (SIAM) was founded in 2014 supported by a Gravitation grant of the government.