Science week 'What is Life?'

How did organic life start? Can we create new life forms? Can we imitate and learn from the special capacities of living beings – birds, spiders, insects? And can we change the genetic basis of organisms, populations or species?

Organised by 100 years WUR

Mon 12 March 2018 until Wed 14 March 2018

Venue Wisdom and Wonder Pavilion, Wageningen Campus

Just a few questions that illustrate our quest for understanding the ‘wonder’ of life. We invite you to join this scientific event to celebrate our curiosity together. A celebration that goes far beyond cheering to what we know. Our curiosity is especially driven by what we don’t know and perhaps even driven by the limits to what we could know. It also involves reflecting on the extent of scientists’ responsibility for their discoveries in their pursuit for knowledge and life technologies.

Monday 12 March: What is life?

On the opening day three prominent scientists will reflect on the question “What is life?” from their own research. Keynote speakers are Wilhelm Huck (professor physical organic chemistry, Radboud University Nijmegen), Eörs Szatmáry (professor theoretical biology, Eötvös Loránd University Budapest) and Karen Nelson (president of J. Craig Venter Institute, USA). Additionally, two Wageningen scientists will present their fascination with studying life.

What is life?

Life sciences are central in Wageningen University, but to what extent do we understand what life is? The answer to this question can be found in different scientific domains. An ambitious route is via technology: we understand what life is if we are capable to create, synthesise it from non-living matter. Or think about the evolutionary answer: how did earliest microorganisms on earth come about some 3.5 billion years ago? Obviously the questions differ largely. But no matter which domain, answers require conceptual assumptions about when we call something ‘alive’ and when we do not.

Keynote speakers

Wilhelm Huck is professor of physical organic chemistry at Radboud University Nijmegen. His research is on the basics of life: how does a biological cell ‘live’ and which molecular processes are at work? His goal is to develop a synthetic living cell. In 2016 Huck received a Spinoza premium for his research.

Eörs Szatmáry is professor of theoretical biology at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. His research is on the principles underlying the major steps in evolution, like the origination of life, the development of a cell, but also the emergence of language.

Karen Nelson is president of the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) in the USA and professor microbiology. Her specific expertise goes to the large quantity of bacteria in our body which, in important respects determine our biological functioning and health. JCVI has a leading role in genomics, studying the structure, function, evolution, mapping, and editing of genomes.


14:00 Opening by Louise Fresco, President of Wageningen University & Research
14:10 Wilhelm Huck
14:50 Eörs Szathmáry
15:20 Coffee break
16:10 Fascination for life - pitches by WUR researchers Tinka Murk and Mark Zwart
16:40 Karen Nelson
17:20 Reflections on the presentations, Marten Scheffer
17:30 Awarding the UFW Research Prize
17:45 Closing remarks & drinks

Tuesday 13 March: Recreating life and bioinspired design

During the symposium Recreating Life & Bio-inspired design we will highlight how designers and engineers use nature as inspiration for their product design, in the field of biomimicry. Nature is full of wonderful examples of elegant and efficient solutions to complex problems, ranging from the flight apparatus of birds to the intricate toe pad used by tree frogs to stick to almost any vertical surface. These biological systems arose from millions of years of evolution, and thus mimicking such systems in engineering, can lead to novel, creative, and often aesthetically-appealing solutions to societal issues.

Recreating life and bioinspired design

The second day of Science Week LIFE consists of several sessions.

Session 1: In Animal Flight & Drones, we will highlight the amazing flight capabilities of birds, bats and insects, and how we can learn from them to improve human-made flying devices.

Session 2: In Plants, Buildings & Robots, we will show how the intricate morphology of plants can be used as inspiration in architecture, and how (bio-inspired) robots can improve plant production systems.

Session 3: Throughout the animal world, there is an enormous variety of solutions for sticking to surfaces, ranging from the annoying housefly that walks (and poops) on your windows to the tree frog that can stick to almost any surface in the rain forest. Here, we will show how these animals are capable of these amazing feats, and how we can replicate these systems in technology.

Session 4: Today, the human impact on our planet can hardly be underestimated. Untouched nature is almost nowhere to be found – “We were here” echoes all over. Although we long for natural experiences and aspire to save Nature, few have asked the elementary question ‘What is Nature?’ Should we refresh our notion of nature, now that we live in a world of branded butterflies, growing bridges and drone insects?

During dinner we will demonstrate a range of (bio-inspired) robots developed at WUR.

Keynote speakers

A rapid growing field in aerospace engineering is the field of micro-air vehicle or drone design, but currently these drones are still vastly outperformed by similarly-sized flying birds. Professor David Lentink of Stanford University, and alumnus of WUR, studies the flight dynamics of birds in order to use these amazing flyers as bio-inspiration for his drones.

Flying insects are highly maneuverable, allowing them to fly in extreme conditions, such as in cluttered or very windy environments. Guido de Croon (associate professor at TU Delft) and Florian Muijres (assistant professor WUR) will show how we can use flying insects and their remarkable sensing and control capabilities as inspiration for the creation of autonomously flying drones.

Professor Jan Knippers is head of the Institute of Building Structures and Structural Design and spokes-person of the research centre Biological Design and Integrative Structures. His work focuses on bionics, whereby he uses nature as inspiration in architecture and civil engineering. Knippers will highlight the enormous potential of using inspiration from nature, and especially from plants, to make elegant strong and light structures in architecture and civil engineering. This design approach has already led to several beautiful and award-winning architectural designs around the world.

Rick van de Zedde, senior scientist at WUR, will show how (bio-inspired) robots are being developed and used to improve our food production systems. This ranges from autonomous drones scanning agricultural fields, to human-mimicking robots that scan, assess and pick ripe vegetables in greenhouses.

David Labonte is lecturer at Imperial College London where he studies biomechanics and the evolution of advanced biological materials. Labonte will showcase the exceptional diversity of adhesion systems in climbing animals, and how these systems are used in synergy to stick to, but also release from, a wide range of different substrates. He will then show how these biological adhesives are being used as inspiration, for the development of reversible adhesion systems in technology.

WUR researchers Marleen Kamperman and Julian Langowski will discuss how nature can inspire us to develop novel bio-inspired medical tools. This ranges from adhesive surgical grippers inspired by tree frogs to new medical glues that work in wet environments, inspired by marine worms.

Koert van Mensvoort is an artist and philosopher, and founder of Next Nature. The aim of the Next Nature network is to better understand our co-evolutionary relationship with technology, and help set out a track towards a future that is rewarding for both humankind and the planet at large.


15:00 Introduction by day chair Simon Vink, WUR
15:15 Guido de Croon & Florian Muijres - Case: flying insects & drones
15:35 David Lentink - Animals flight & drones
16:15 Coffee break
16:45 Jan Knippers - Plants & buildings
17:25 Rick van de Zedde - Case: plant phenotyping & robotics
17:45 Dinner & robots
19:15 David Labonte - Sticking in nature & technology
19:55 Julian Langowski & Marleen Kemperman - Case: frogs & worms for biomedical application
20:15 - 21:00 Koert van Mensvoort

Wednesday 14 March: Changing and creating life

On Wednesday 14 March, scientists explore the scientific and ethical challenges and opportunities of genome editing of plants, animals, humans and wildlife populations. In the afternoon symposium Editing the genome: challenges and opportunities will take place. In the evening a dinner, World Lecture & Dialogue will take place. Topic of the evening programme is 200 years Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Editing the genome: challenges and opportunities

The discovery of CRISPR technology, several years ago, has created fascinating ways to delete, change or repair parts of DNA in a very efficient and precise way. As a result, there will be novel ways in plant or animal breeding, and to prevent diseases in human beings. What are the opportunities and challenges scientists see at the moment? And what ethical issues arise, if gene editing is brought into practice?

With gene drives, it will even be possible to change wildlife populations of animals in a radical way – when applied to mosquitos this holds the promise to overcome specific infectious diseases. Should we experiment with gene drives, to eradicate complete mosquito populations to prevent spread of diseases like malaria, dengue or zika?

Keynote speakers

John van der Oost of Wageningen University & Research is one of the pioneers in microbiology who discovered the working mechanisms of the CRISPR system.

Sjef Smeekens is professor in molecular plan physiology, and dean of the Faculty of Science at Utrecht University. He studied signaling function of sugars as crucial factors that determine plant growth.

Martien Groenen is professor Animal Breeding and Genetics at WUR. He played a prominent role in international chicken and swine genome sequencing projects, but his group also sequenced yellow tail kingfish.

Annelien Bredenoord is professor Ethics of Biomedical Innovation at University Medical Centre Utrecht and has published widely on novel technologies in genomics.

Tony Nolan is a molecular biologist at Imperial College London. His research aims to manipulate the biology of the mosquitoes in ways that can interfere with their ability to transmit disease. In particular this can be done by combining a genetic modification that disrupts female fertility which could rapidly spread in a population, leading to population suppression.


13:15 Introduction by day chair Hedwig te Molder, Wageningen
13:40 John van der Oost - Basics of CRISPR
14:00 Sjef Smeekens -Challenges and opportunities of genome editing in plants
14:30 Martien Groenen - Editing genomes of livestock: revolution or hype?
15:00 Coffee break with discussions in the audience
15:45 Looking back at the audience discussions
16:00 Annelien Bredenoord - Editing the humane genome
16:30 Tony Nolan - Gene drives, with a focus on malaria control
17:00 Discussion with speakers
17:30 Closing remarks - end

Dialogue 'Creating Artificial Life: The Responsibility of the Designer'

Dialogue 'Creating artificial Life: The Responsibility of the Designer'
(in het Nederlands: Wereldlezing 'Creating artificial Life: The Responsibility of the Designer'

2018 is not only the first centennial of WUR, but also the second centennial of the publication of Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein. Her story, and the name of Victor Frankenstein has been used and abused a multitude of times, especially in relation to novel technological developments. In 1818, a novel was written on the creation of new life. In 2018, we are really designing artificial life. But what is the responsibility of the designer?

At the Dialogue, science journalist Philip Ball presents his views on the legacy of Frankenstein and the implications for our thinking about science. Professor in Philosophy Philip Brey will then discuss the technological revolution we’re facing and the origin of our hopes and fears regarding artificial life. With that knowledge we further explore areas that call for responsibility in science, where the analogies with Frankenstein may or may not hold.

Keynote speakers

Science journalist Philip Ball has a background in physics and is a former editor of Nature. He also wrote many popular books on science and philosophy, one of which Unnatural: The heretical idea of making people.

Professor Philip Brey is scientific director of the 4TU and professor of philosophy of technology at the University of Twente. He also leads the EU Horizon 2020 project SIENNA on the ethical and human rights aspects of emerging technologies.


18:00 Dinner and first Frankenstein movie (1910)
19:00 Lectures: Philip Ball & Philip Brey
20:00-21:00 Dialogue 'Creating Artificial Life: The Responsibility of the Designer'
21.00-21.30 Networking drinks

Registration for each of these free symposia is now open, sign up below: