Speech 2009 by Prof. Dr. Martin Kropff

This speech was given during the Dies Natalis ceremony in 2009: 'Darwin in Wageningen'.

Martin Kropff

1. Introduction: From Darwin to today’s biology

In my presentation I will discuss several aspects of Darwin’s legacy related to research and education at Wageningen University.

In the history of science we can identify many breakthroughs, paradigm shifts and scientific leaps. But only a few of these have resulted in a major change in society as a whole. A change that completely turned around our way of thinking and scientific insights.

One of those changes, or perhaps better: ‘shocks’, was the realisation that the Earth is not the center of the Universe based on scientific work by Copernicus and later Galilei.

Darwin’s book ‘ The origin of Species’ published 150 years ago, also marks such a shocking scientific insight. He demonstrated that the world and all species were not created in 6 days and described the process of evolution.

In the 20th century many scientific developments together led to the understanding that people are not the centre but completely depend on many other species and that man is part of the extended ecological system. Not only for food supply and materials but, for example, we also discovered that millions of micro organisms perform essential functions in our human body.

Since I studied biology I have a precious old copy of ”the Origin of Species” on my bookshelf. “The Origin” is a masterpiece with an extensive description of Darwin’s observations and well thought through conclusions.

Darwin’s theory on the origin of species is mainly based on 3 observations:

  1.     Descendants resemble their parents
  2.     Variation exists among these descendants
  3.     the principles of natural selection
  4.     As a result of these processes and reproductive isolation, speciation takes place.

In the centuries before Darwin, biology was mainly a descriptive activity, collecting and describing species throughout the world. Around 1800, speculation started about the implications of the visible order in nature. Darwin was the first to propose a clear mechanism that could explain that order. The mechanism of evolution based on the processes I mentioned. After Darwin, a major breakthrough was realised by Gregor Mendel who laid the basis for genetics by finding the basic rules for inheritance. These findings were rediscovered and the combination of the laws of Mendel and the findings of Darwin provided the basis for modern biology. Dobzhansky was one of them and his famous statement was:

“”Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution””.

In 1953, Watson and Crick provided the molecular basis of genetics. Another revolutionary publication. Not a book, but a 1 page article in Nature. Since then, many developments especially at the molecular level have broadened our insight in genetics.

In light of these developments my first conclusion is that for Wageningen University

as a University of Life Sciences working on ecosystems and agroecosystems,

Darwin’s work is the most important scientific breakthrough in the history of science.

2. Darwin’s legacy and biology education in Wageningen

The evolution of research and education at Wageningen University has been intertwined from the very beginning. Gradually, our domain developed into healthy food and living environment. We started with domain oriented educational programs such as plant production in Dutch and tropical environments and later food and environmental sciences. In the mid 20th century, focus in research changed from applied to more fundamental. The general Biology education programme started in 1970 and could be developed because all relevant disciplines were available in Wageningen.

In this slide you see the central domain of Wageningen University and Research Centre with the first circle of basic biological disciplines, similar to biological disciplines at other universities. Disciplines such as physiology, genetics, molecular biology, cell-biology ecology and microbiology. However, in Wageningen it is combined with domain focused biology related disciplines: animal and plant breeding and genetics, entomology, nematology.

Our biology students can select thesis subjects from 22 chairgroups ranging from fundamental molecular biology to plant or animal production systems. In addition, we have the domain oriented educational programmes such as animal sciences or forest and nature conservation.

The position of biology at several Dutch universities is being discussed intensively. For Wageningen University, the biology education programme is currently our largest programme in the BSc and will remain to be part of our core business . Wageningen University is doing well both in education and research with top rankings in the choice evaluation and 2 prestigeous Spinoza awards and an academy professor in recent years. All from biological disciplines. Biology education in Wageningen has a sound basis in the basic biological disciplines as well as in the domain oriented biological disciplines.

As predicted by our former professor HCD de Wit, the 21st century is the century of the biosciences. Biosciences to understand living systems and to help to preserve biodiversity and our environment and simultaneously produce sufficient healthy and safe food. That is our challenge!

So my second conclusion is that the combination of basic and domain oriented biological disciplines provide an excellent and inspiring learning environment. A learning environment to educate future generations to cope with those challenges.

3. Darwin’s legacy and research in Wageningen University

At Wageningen University, research related to evolutionary processes and biodiversity have developed along 3 lines:

  1.     man-made evolution in plant and animal breeding: biodiversity as natural capital
  2.     functionality of biodiversity
  3.     evolution as a basic biological process
Firstly breeding. Darwin already indicated that Breeding is an evolutionary process in which man selects and determines the sexual reproduction process. In plant and animal breeding major improvements have been made in food production as a result of research.

Since the 1960’s the fundamentals of quantitative genetics have been applied in animal and plant sciences. As a result of this in combination with understanding of the processes determining production, the efficiency of milk ,meat and crop production has been strongly enhanced.

Today, new genomics tools are used intensively for example in chicken research. Our scientists co-published the genetic map of chicken in ‘Nature’. This information is very important as the genetic diversity in chicken is extremely small. However, the next step is the interpretation in functional terms to address the biological questions.

Interestingly, this knowledge is now used to unravel the genomics of wild bird species such as the Parus major, a common bird species, to further stimulate ecological research.

The most striking breakthrough in plant breeding is the introduction of dwarfing genes in cereals in the 1960’s and 70’s. First in wheat and later in rice. In my former home institute the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, the first breeders in 1960 developed IR8. This was the first semi-dwarf rice variety that increased the yield potential of rice in one leap from 1.5 to 10t/ha. This resulted in the green revolution: rice production worldwide has tripled since then.

An interesting recent example of using the latest genomics insight and technology in breeding is the development of durable resistance against late blight, the major disease in potato crops.

The disease is very aggressive, genetic resistance is broken down very fast and the fungus adapts very rapidly to agrochemicals. A visible process of fast evolution. Our scientists identify resistance genes and introduce these in existing varieties. The genes come from varieties of potato itself. Hopefully this technology will be accepted by our society as it opens doors for the development of sustainable potato production with a strong reduction of agrochemical use.

This example shows the importance of the debate between scientists and society on the use of modern technology. We study and analyse the risks in order provide information to society and policy makers on which decisions can be made. A modern ethical framework on these issues is needed as well.

To facilitate the development of future varieties we need to preserve the existing biodiversity. One method is the use of gene-banks where seeds are preserved at low temperatures. At Wageningen UR we have a gene-bank for wild and cultivated varieties of horticultural crops. Hundreds of thousands of accessions are stored at international gene-banks. At Spitsbergen, recently all major gene-banks stored a duplicate of their key material.

Our understanding made us realise that it is necessary to conserve biodiversity, for its own sake and for yet unknown future use in food, medicine and industrial applications.

In a special programme our PROTA team collects all information and knowledge on useful plant species in Africa in databases for future generations, as has already been done for Asia and is to be expanded to Latin America . We are very pleased that the BMGates foundation enabled continuation of the programme.

Much of our work in natural systems is focused on understanding the functioning of organisms, organisms in relation to their environment, interactions between organisms and at the highest level the functioning of ecosystems.

At the ecosystem level the aquatic ecology group developed system models on the stability and resilience of complex ecosystems. They demonstrated that an ecosystem with its biodiversity can suddenly change irreversibly. A discontinuity can occur such as observed in our lakes. They were clear and suddenly the visibility in the water was gone: the system entered in a new state. It appearch very difficult to bring the system back in the old state. We need such systems insight badly for our aquatic systems but others as well. In these systems fishing activities may soon lead to irreversible loss of the existing biodiversity.

At the level of the functioning of ecosystems our knowledge and understanding of biodiversity (so-called functional biodiversity) has s only recently begun to become suitable for application in the management of natural and agricultural systems. Although heavily influenced by man, the functioning of agricultural systems is strongly influenced by the so-called associated biodiversity. Or, in other words, the biodiversity that is just there, in the soil and above ground and contributes to the stability of the system.Evolutionary processes as such are studied by the Genetics Group. With microorganisms with a short life cycle so that many generations can be studied within the life span of a researcher. They proved the process of evolution through mutations resulting in resistance to antibiotics.

Evolution in the lab. They very recently found in bacteria that in a new environment ,during the process of adaptation evolution of resistance to antibiotics is not predictable. However, after the adaptation period the process of evolution was repeatable Remarkable results that have just been submitted for publication.

My conclusion on this overview comes close to the title of today’s celebration: A major component of Darwin’s legacy is the realisation that biodiversity is essential and valuable for living systems and can be seen as natural capital for natural and agro-ecosystems.

4. What are the new challenges in relation to Darwin’s legacy?

What are the new challenges in relation to Darwin’s legacy?

As I indicated in the first part of my address, the rapid developments in molecular biology and genetics in as I said the century of biosciences, force us to study and understand the functionality of the genome. For evolutionary processes related to breeding and the functionality of biodiversity in natural and agro-ecosystems.

In the past 4 decades Wageningen has had the lead in the development of understanding of the behaviour of agro-ecosystems based on underlying processes using systems models. Data were in search of a system and such systems or models were provided and accelerated science.

Today we have a new situation with huge genomic datasets for which we need frameworks and systems to understand the behaviour of living cells and organisms on the basis of the processes and the genome. All our genetic information is coming from 4 bases. Just like our computer information is based on zeros and ones. Our genome is of a similar size as that of other organisms, and many genes are similar among organisms. For many still a shocking notion.

So again data are in search of a system. Although we know the base sequence of many species today, understanding the functionality of the genome is still a major challenge.

So, the next step is coherence and systems understanding often indicated as ‘systems biology’. Similar developments as those we had at the higher levels of integration are needed at the scales from the genome to the cell and the organism. As we have strong teams working on systems biology with micro organisms, plants as well as animals, we have a unique opportunity to contribute to the development of systems biology in Wageningen. However, we need to bring in the time dimension at an evolutionary scale as well. As right at the level of the genome recombination and mutations take place.

But, let’s not forget that it all started with Darwin who did the same in ‘the Origin’. He and others collected the data, but he also developed a biologically meaningful framework to understand the process behind his observations: the theory of evolution. That enabled research to evaluate new theoretical hypotheses. He is the initiator of modern biology.

In conclusion :

Darwin’s legacy in relation to biodiversity as natural capital provides Wageningen UR with new challenges to address key issues of society in the future to produce enough and healthy food while preserving the natural resource base. The combination of biology-related disciplines with technological disciplines and social sciences provide an environment to address those challenges by current and future generations of scientists.

Thank you