New centre for research on microorganisms

February 23, 2024

Wageningen microbiologists are to establish a new centre on the campus: the Wageningen Microbiome Center (WMC). Initiator Thijs Ettema: ‘There is a lot of microbiology in Wageningen.’

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Since his appointment to the position of chair of the Laboratory of Microbiology in 2019, Thijs Ettema has been working on increasing the visibility and coherence of Wageningen’s research on microorganisms. ‘Then you really see how much microbiology there is in Wageningen,’ he says. Some twenty research groups in Wageningen study microbiomes, the collection of bacteria, archaea, viruses, fungi, microalgae, or combinations of these single-cell organisms and microorganisms.

Broad range of topics

Microbial research takes place within four sciences groups. Researchers of the Agrotechnology and Food Sciences Group, for example, work on cultures of microorganisms that are used for the production of food and valuable biomolecules. Also, microorganisms are used to purify water and to conserve renewable energy from waste streams. Other groups, for instance from Wageningen Food Safety Research, study microbial pathogens and other microbes in relation to food safety and quality.

Researchers of the Plant Sciences Group and Animal Sciences Group study microorganisms in crop production, aquaculture and livestock farming. Microbiomes in soil are the subject of study at WUR’s Environmental Sciences Group and the Dutch Institute for Ecology NIOO-KNAW, which will also participate in the Wageningen Microbiome Center.

Microbiologist Hauke Smidt, who initiated the WMC with Ettema, underscores the importance of social sciences within the new centre. ‘We hope that the social sciences will join us. A lot of research is being done on new products that are linked to microbiomes. Probiotics, for example, drinks or pills containing “healthy bacteria”, as well as microbial products that boost animal and plant health. There are high hopes for these products that may not always be justified. Economic and consumer studies are, hence, relevant. Other examples that require the contribution of social scientists include studies on the influence of GMOs on the environment.

Unique position

Ettema believes that Wageningen takes a unique position due to the wide range of its microbial research. ‘Many microbiome centres have been established in the Netherlands and elsewhere, but they generally focus on patients and human health: the human microbiome. That is also one of the topics in our research, but the WMC is much broader. Microorganisms play a part in Wageningen themes such as healthy nutrition, climate, biodiversity, animal health, plant health and the circular economy.’

New building

Some of the groups in Wageningen will not only work together but also move in together. A new building is to be constructed on the campus, which will be finalised by the end of 2025 or the beginning of 2026. The building will house five chair groups of Wageningen University, a Wageningen Research research group and UNLOCK. UNLOCK is the NWO-funded national infrastructure for studies on microbial communities in which WUR and Delft University of Technology collaborate. This programme, which is coordinated by WUR professor Hauke Smidt, regulates the easily accessible use of research facilities by the participating groups and other users, among other things.

New initiatives

Smidt and Ettema are currently discussing research partnerships within a think tank in which representatives from all the microbial groups participate. Ettema: ‘Since many groups will not be physically housed in the centre, we must consider other forms of collaboration. We aim, at least, to know about each other’s research. Moreover, we aim to discover how we can collaborate to enhance the quality of our research.’

What are possible joint projects? Smit: ‘Examples include circular food systems. We want to close the cycles in arable and livestock farming by valorising manure processing and crop leftovers. That may affect human, animal, plant and environmental health. In all cases, microorganisms play a role in closing the cycles. We stand to gain a lot by merging the knowledge of different microbiology groups.’