Ben Scheres appointed as special professor Applied Plant Developmental Biology

Published on
May 26, 2023

The executive board has appointed prof. dr. Ben Scheres as Special Professor Applied Plant Developmental Biology at the Plant Sciences Group of Wageningen University & Research (WUR). The chair commenced on May 1 and is funded by Rijk Zwaan Breeding BV.

Dr Richard Harrison, Managing Director of the Plant Sciences Group: “To solve one of the greatest problems of our time, how to produce food, sustainably, fairly and in a nature positive way requires bringing together skills and expertise from across the breadth of scientific expertise and across value chains. Ben’s approach to stimulating pre-competitive, discovery-based open science for broad benefit exemplifies how working together we can accelerate the sustainable transition.”

Scheres: ‘It is an enormous challenge to bring fundamental research in the plant sciences to application. I hope to be able to act as a bridge that connects the most basic research questions to the improvement of crops’

After studying Phytopathology at WUR and completing a PhD in plant-microbe interactions, Scheres did his post-doctoral research at Ghent University. He was an independent principal investigator (PI) at Utrecht University from 1990 onward in the Molecular Genetics department, and became personal professor in 1999 and chair holder in 2006.

Spinoza award

In Utrecht, Ben started to develop the Arabidopsis root as a model system for understanding the development of plants. His group discovered that the growth tips of roots contain stem cells, which are organized in similar ways to the stem cells in humans and animals. His group also discovered an amazing flexibility of plant cells to specialize according to clues from neighboring cells, and was the first to reveal the key concept of hormone accumulation in ‘maxima’ as a mechanism for plant development. To understand how cells in plants work together to direct these hormones, the group used computer simulations of growing root tips which contained the working mechanisms behind the molecules that control development. In 2006, his work resulted in a Spinoza award.

Move to WUR

In 2012, Ben Scheres relocated his group to WUR and became Chair of the Plant Developmental Biology group. There, he continued to study plant development, with the aim to better connect to Wageningen groups strong in aspects of plant biology and genetics. In 2018, Scheres took up another challenge, which is to manage the large Biotechnology research group of the breeding company Rijk Zwaan.

According to Scheres, an important motivator for this move was the famous quote of the Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feymann: ‘what I cannot create I do not understand’. In addition, after many years in fundamental plant sciences, it became a burning question to him how value can be extracted from basic research knowledge.

While being emerged in the company context, Scheres continued to be in touch with the Plant Developmental Biology group in an advisory role. This led to work in two areas where much more fundamental science is needed to allow tailored applications that would bring plant breeding forward. His vision is that the regeneration of whole plants from cells, and the control of positioning of leaves need new scientific approaches to be adaptable to a large range of crops and crop types. Sophisticated work on Arabidopsis with new technologies will be needed to achieve these two targets for the future. The common element between these two applications is a deeper understanding of plant stem cells and how they are controlled, and in this way the research naturally fits with Scheres’ long standing interests.