Youngest WUR professor fascinated by the complexity of the smallest organisms on earth

Marnix Medema became fascinated by the molecular complexity of life while writing a project in high school. At 16, he wondered how molecular systems worked and how they arose through evolutionary processes. On 1 December, Medema began as a professor of Bioinformatics at Wageningen University & Research, where he continues to work on the questions that puzzled him as a teenager. At age 36, he is currently the youngest professor at Wageningen University.

You research microbiomes. What exactly are they?

Medema: "There are a great many microorganisms in and on our bodies, like bacteria and fungi. If you look at them altogether, they are called the ‘microbiome’, which is also known as the microbiota or microflora. Humans, plants and animals, are covered with these microorganisms from head to toe."

Why should everyone know more about microbiomes?

"Over the last few decades, it has become clear that the microbiome is indispensable for the health of people, animals and plants. At the same time, almost nothing is known about the mechanisms underpinning it.

A great many illnesses are linked to the microbiome, potentially due to a particular imbalance or because certain microbes are missing. But we still often have a very poor understanding of the causes."

What sort of research are you doing?

"My research group and I are trying to understand the ‘chemical language’ of microbes. As an example, which microbial molecules ensure that a plant is protected against diseases? Specialised metabolites - complex substances that microbes assemble - seem to play an important role. They work as signals or weapons, or are used to import nutrients.

We developed computer programmes to look at information in microbial DNA; they show that microbes have the ability to make a tremendous number of these kinds of molecules, the roles of which we do not know yet. To understand the roles these molecules have in the interactions between microbes with plants, animals and humans, we look at various aspects, including the regulation of their production. We also apply machine learning techniques to predict the structures of molecules as well as structure-function relationships."

How far along is the research?

"We are still at the very beginning. A recent study showed that we know the products of around 3% of microbial biosynthetic pathways. This means we don’t know about 97%. Fortunately, technology is getting better and better at figuring out what molecules are important."

Are you doing any other research?

"In the coming years, I hope to be able to look into how plants ‘talks back’ to their microbes using their molecules. I want to do that by developing algorithms that predict which plant genes cooperate in the production of the metabolites that play a role in recruiting good microbes and repelling pathogenic ones."

How important do you believe cooperation is with other institutes, universities, business communities and partners?

"Technology develops rapidly in this field, so cooperation is vital. If you keep to yourself, you fall behind quickly. Cooperation is central to the coordination and storage of global research data, for example. At WUR, we have led consortia where we have worked with hundreds of researchers from different countries to annotate data in a standardised way, enabling more effective data analysis, for example by using machine learning."

How important is teaching to you?

"I actively seek connections between research and teaching in my work. Big challenges lie ahead in my field, in the near future. So, to overcome them, we need researchers who have a deep knowledge of biology as well as data science, programming and machine learning. We need to educate these people now so we can make real progress in the coming years. This is something that gives me immense pleasure.

Students keep you focused with their original questions too, because they are still fresh to the field. It’s always nice to be surprised."

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