Viola Willemsen appointed chair group holder and professor of Cell and Developmental Biology

Published on
June 1, 2023

The Executive Board has appointed Viola Willemsen as chair group holder and professor of Cell and Development Biology at the Plant Science Group at Wageningen University & Research (WUR).

Speaking about her appointment Dr Richard Harrison, Managing Director of the Plant Sciences Group said: Viola brings a wealth of experience and expertise in understanding the fundamental molecular mechanisms regulating plant development. Our understanding of these processes is crucial to provide insights into approaches to develop resilient crops for sustainable farming systems. In addition to her scientific expertise her encouraging and supportive leadership exemplifies the personal qualities we seek in the position of chair.’

Viola Willemsen: ‘It is an honor to be appointed to this position. For the past three years I was already working as interim chair holder for the Plant Developmental Biology cluster, of which Cell and Developmental Biology (formerly Cell Biology) is a part. During that time we have already been able to build the research and a good and strong team. I look forward to building and strengthening this even further together.'

Willemsen previously worked as a PhD candidate, a postdoctoral researcher and an assistant professor at Utrecht University. For her PhD research, she studied pattern formation and polarity during the embryogenesis and root formation of Arabidopsis. In 2012, Willemsen came to Wageningen University & Research (WUR) to work as a senior university lecturer. For the past three years, she has served as interim chair group leader of the Plant Developmental Biology cluster, of which Cell and Developmental Biology (formerly Cell Biology) is a part.

Within the chair group that Willemsen will lead, their researchers are studying how cells adapt their identities and subjects like the dynamics of cellular organization in relation to cell communication, cell growth, cell division, polarity and the genetic networks involved.

Pioneering root research

Willemsen and several of her colleagues were at the forefront of root research. In the 1990s, she and her colleagues unravelled the elegantly simple root architecture of the model plant Arabidopsis (rockcress) and introduced confocal microscopy for analysing root structures. They revealed that the blueprint of this simple pattern is formed during embryogenesis. They also discovered the stem cell niche in the root tip of Arabidopsis, identifying the involvement of the auxin maximum along with several crucial proteins. The auxin maximum is where there is a peak concentration of auxin, the plant hormone that drives plant growth and development.

Plant architecture

Willemsen researches the genetic networks and developmental biological mechanisms of plants. These networks and mechanisms control essential decisions during the formation of tissues and organs, such as the rotation of cell division surfaces, which are crucial in forming the plant's architecture. Architecture influences the final shape of the plant and is important for productivity and plant yield.

Understanding which internal and environmental actors drive this decision, how plants can use it to adapt and optimise their architecture and how it affects longer-term genetic networks is crucial for making crops more sustainable.

Regeneration of plants and tissues

Willemsen is also interested in the regeneration of plants and tissues, which involves the same mechanisms as those in architecture. Regeneration is an important process for creating new crops adapted to rapidly changing external conditions, among other factors. However, many crops are recalcitrant and thus difficult to regenerate. A better understanding of the underlying mechanisms helps to optimise and improve this regeneration process.