Winner of the Research Award 2023 Bel Koopal with her cheque next to Prof. Wouter Hendriks

Research Award

University Fund Wageningen (UFW) aims to promote the prosperity and growth of Wageningen University & Research (WUR). With this in mind UFW yearly awards the Research Award. The prize is awarded to a WUR-researcher, younger than 40 years of age, who has published an outstanding and original scientific article in the calendar year preceding the ceremony.

Winner Research Award 2023

PhD candidate Balwina Koopal received the WUR Research Award 2023 for her discovery of a new bacterial immune system. The University Fund Wageningen’s prize was presented during Wageningen University & Research’s 105th Dies Natalis. Koopal received the award for her interpretation of the function and effect of the so-called SPARTA system.

Previous winners

Research Award 2022

The Research Award 2022 of the University Fund Wageningen (UFW) has been awarded to Ernst-Jan Eggers, PhD student at the Laboratory of Plant Breeding and researcher at Solynta. He won the prize for his research into the Sli gene in diploid potato breeding, a gene responsible for the plant's ability to pollinate itself. His research was published in the renowned scientific journal Nature Communications in 2021 with the title: “Neofunctionalisation of the Sli gene leads to self-compatibility and facilitates precision breeding in potato”.

Thanks to Eggers, it is now known exactly how the Sli gene is expressed in diploid potatoes. Due to the presence of the Sli gene in diploid potatoes, a plant breeder can make an inbred line through repeated self-pollinations and can cross it with other inbred lines that have other good qualities. This creates a hybrid variety that is resistant to, for example, drought or certain diseases, or that contains a high nutritional value. Such a hybrid variety can then be marketed in one of the many potato-growing areas in the world.

The award ceremony took place during the symposium preceding the 104th Dies Natalis of Wageningen University & Research (WUR) on 9 March. President of the jury Rumyana Karlova, assistant professor at the Laboratory of Plant Physiology, presented the prize. Eggers received a certificate, together with a replica of the statue 'De Wageningse Boom' and a cash prize of €2,500.

Research Award 2021

The 2021 University Fund Wageningen (UFW) Research Award was granted to dr Irene Sánchez-Andrea on the 103rd Dies Natalis. Dr Sánchez-Andrea is an assistant professor at the Wageningen University & Research (WUR) Laboratory for Microbiology. She won the prize for her research on a new CO2 capturing pathway in microbes. She published her findings in the leading journal Nature Communications in 2020.

The award ceremony was broadcast during the Dies Natalis, held entirely online this year. Sánchez-Andrea was awarded a certificate, a replica of the “Wageningen tree” sculpture and a sum of 2500 euros.

During a three-year collaboration with UC Berkley and the Max Planck Institute, Sánchez-Andrea successfully proved a seventh pathway for CO2 fixation. Only six pathways were known to capture CO2 in plants and micro-organisms. Various research groups have attempted to prove the existence of a seventh pathway since the eighties of the last century without success.

- Unfortunately, your cookie settings do not allow videos to be displayed. - check your settings

Practical applications

During research on the D. desulfuricans bacteria, Sánchez-Andrea found that this bacteria is capable of capturing CO2, but that this did not involve any of the known pathways. Through computer analysis of biological data, she was able to show that this process involved a new method of CO2 capture through the formation of formate and glycine. These are non-organic carbon sources. Sánchez-Andrea described the discovery in the publication: “The reductive glycine pathway allows autotrophic growth of Desulfovibrio desulfuricans”.

This new discovery is not just of great scientific value; the practical applications also appear to be very interesting. It is one of the most energy-efficient methods of capturing CO2 and could be applied to transform CO2 into renewable chemicals and fuels.

Irene Sanchez-Andrea

Photo: Guy Ackermans

Jury report

The jury called Sánchez-Andrea’s research a textbook-altering discovery. ‘The study opens the way to applied research in which this method of CO2-fixation could be used in the production of biomass and renewable chemicals and biofuels. This is a fabulous example of curiosity and hypothesis-driven fundamental research with huge application potential.’

The jury also expressed admiration for her passionate multidisciplinary collaboration within and outside of the university to find answers to her research questions.

The jury for 2020 was made up of prof. Dr ir Alfons Oude Lansink, jury chair; dr. Daan Swarts, winner of the 2015 Research Award; prof. Dr Erik van der Linden, prof. Dr Aarti Gupta, dr Folkert Boersma, dr Charlotte Gommers and dr ir Sonja de Vries.

Read the full news article here.

Research Award 2020

The 2020 University Fund Wageningen Research Award was presented to Jorge C. Navarro-Muñoz, a former postdoc researcher at Wageningen University & Research.

His publication, on which he collaborated with several PhD candidates and masters students of the Wageningen Bioinformatics Group, was published in Nature Chemical Biology. The paper was also featured on the cover of the magazine in January 2020. Dr Marnix Medema, who co-authored the article and nominated the candidate, accepted the award on behalf of Jorge: A certificate, a replica of the sculpture ‘The Wageningen tree’, and a sum of € 2,500.

Various students and researchers from the Bio-informatics department collaborated to find a new method allowing scientists to search for new antibiotics much faster than was previously possible. To this end, they use BiG-SCAPE, an open-source computer programme developed by Jorge Navarro-Muñoz. This programme enables extensive research of biosynthetic diversity, through analysing thousands of genomes simultaneously, instead of studying, analysing and mapping single genomes of antibiotics producing organisms individually. This newly developed method was instrumental in the discovery of a microbial gene cluster essential to the repressing of plant pathogens. Insight in the diversity of chemical structures is vital to developing medicines to treat cancer, for example. Furthermore, it helps us understand how micro-organisms and plants interact with their environment. The newly developed software is fast, accurate and widely applicable.

Marnix Medema, nominator and co-author, giving a speech on Jorge's behalf. © Guy Ackermans
Marnix Medema, nominator and co-author, giving a speech on Jorge's behalf. © Guy Ackermans

Jury report

The jury praised the publication. “The practicability is very high and scalable, and the scientific impact is enormous. This is demonstrated by the fact that other scientists are already using the application. It works well.” The jury expects the research will become a cornerstone in experimental work that centres around data.

For young scientists

The University Fund Wageningen presents the Research Award annually to young scientists (under 40 years of age) that have published an excellent and original scientific article in the previous year. The jury for the 2020 award consisted of Prof. dr Erik van der Linden, who chaired the jury; prof. dr Bas Zwaan; prof. dr ir. Alfons Oude Lansink; dr Daan Swarts, winner of the 2015 Research Award; Sumanth Mutte MSc, one of the winners of the 2019 Research Award.

Read the full article:

A computational framework to explore large-scale biosynthetic diversity in Nature Chemical Biology, 16, pages 60–68 (2020)

Research Award 2019

The 2019 University Fund Wageningen (UFW) Research Award goes to Sumanth K. Mutte MSc, Dr. Hirotaka Kato, both at the Biochemistry group of Wageningen University & Research, led by prof. Dolf Weijers. In their joint paper, published in eLife, the researchers pioneered a new field in plant biology: evolutionary biochemistry. The researchers received a certificate, a replica of the statuette ‘The Wageningen Tree’ and a sum of €2500 in total.

In their study at the Laboratory of Biochemistry at Wageningen University & Research Sumanth Mutte and Hirotaka Kato worked together as two specialists with different expertise. While Sumanth Mutte included his bioinformatic expertise, Hirotaka Kato complemented the research as an experimental biologist. “Very effectively and innovatively,” as the jury stated. Sumanth single-handedly designed a clever bioinformatics strategy to identify response proteins of the plant hormone auxin from more than a thousand plant species, including many algae and early land plants. Doing so, he could identify the ‘birthplace’ of auxin response in the earliest land plants, more than 450 million years ago, and he could reconstruct the steps in evolution that made the system complex.

Sumanth K. Mutte.JPG

Sumanth Mutte was present during the ceremony to receive the award. © SpreadtheWURd

Jury report

The jury greatly appreciated the publication. “The paper provides answers to a pressing question in plant biology, and by doing so it has not only opened up possibilities for new research lines, both applied and fundamental, related to auxin biology, but it will stimulate similar approaches related to hormone regulation and the generation of biodiversity in other organisms as well. This paper thus provides an outstanding example of the research excellence.” The jury concludes: “A deserved winner of the University Fund Wageningen Research Award.”

For young researchers

The University Fund Wageningen presents the Research Award to a young WUR researcher (under the age of 40), who has published an excellent and original scientific article in the calendar year prior to the award. Jury members for the 2019 edition were:

Prof. Bas Zwaan, Professor and Director Graduate School Production Ecology & Resource Conservation; Prof. Johan van Leeuwen, Professor of Experimental Zoology and Director of the graduate school Wageningen Institute of Animal Sciences; Prof. Karin Schroen, Personal Professor Agrotechnology and Food Sciences and Daan Swarts PhD, Assistant Professor at the Laboratory of Biochemistry and winner Research Award 2015.

Scientific publication

Origin and evolution of the nuclear auxin response system, Sumanth K. Mutte MSc, Dr. Hirotaka Kato, eLife (open-access journal), 27 March 2018.

Source: Press release WUR 2 September 2019.


  • prof.dr. Bas Zwaan, Professor and Director Graduate School Production Ecology & Resource Conservation
  • Johan van Leeuwen, Professor of Experimental Zoology and Director Wageningen Institute of Animal Sciences

  • Karin Schroen, Personal professor Agrotechnology and Food Sciences

  • Daan Swarts PhD, Assistant Professor Laboratory of Biochemistry and former winner Research Award 2015

Research Award 2018

The 2018 University Fund Wageningen (UFW) Research Award goes to Carolina Levis, researcher at Forest Ecology and Forest Management Group of Wageningen University & Research. She has been granted the award for leading an interdisciplinary research team of archaeologists and ecologists, resulting in a publication in the renowned journal Science. Carolina Levis received a certificate, a replica of the statuette ‘The Wageningen Tree’ and a sum of €2500 during the symposium ‘What is Life’, which took place as part of the 100 years WUR celebratory programme on 12 March.

Carolina Levis’s research team demonstrated that tree species in the Amazon basin, used by the indigenous population prior to the arrival of Columbus, play an important role in the composition of modern-day forests. This is the subject of fierce debate. The team overlaid archaeological data of habitation in the Amazon area on the distribution data of 85 tree species already domesticated in the pre-Columbian era. They showed that domesticated tree species are five times more overrepresented than species not selected by humans. These old species were found to be more common in forests close to archaeological settlements than in forests far away from these sites. The researchers conclude that part of the structure of the ‘untouched’ Amazon forest has a long history of influence by human settlement.

Carolina Levis’s team published the findings in the reputable journal Science (2017). In this journal she is the first author of an article with more than 150 co-authors.

Young leadership

The jury praises the leadership of the young researcher (aged 30), as well as her drive and creativity. The research is an excellent example of the jubilee theme of the 100-year-old university: Wisdom and Wonder.

The University Fund Wageningen presents the Research Award to a young WUR researcher (under the age of 40), who has published an excellent and original scientific article in the calendar year prior to the award. Jury members for the 2018 edition were: Rector Magnificus Prof. Arthur Mol, 2017 Research Award winner Dr Martin N. Mwangi, Professor of Animal Production Systems Imke de Boer, and Professor of Plant Breeding and Dean of Science Richard Visser.

For the judicium: click here.

For the publication: click here.

Research Award 2017

The 2017 Research Award from University Fund Wageningen (UFW) has been granted to nutritional scientist Dr Martin N. Mwangi. He was granted the award during the 99th anniversary celebration of Wageningen University & Research (WUR) on 9 March. He received the prize for his incredible scientific publication on enriching meals for pregnant Kenyan women with iron, which led to higher birth weight of babies and, in turn, a better start to these young lives. Martin Mwangi received a prize of €2500 and a small replica of the ‘De Wageningse Boom’ (Wageningen Tree) sculpture.

Martin N. Mwangi (1980) conducted his ground-breaking research at the Cell Biology and Immunology chair group of WUR. In his winning article, published in 2015 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), he further pursues his original research to examine whether administering iron has an impact on the risk of infection by the Plasmodium parasite, which causes malaria. He did not find that it had any effect on that, but he did discover an interesting side effect. The birth weight of children born to mothers who received iron was considerably higher, specifically 150 grams heavier (3200 versus 3050 grams for mothers who received the placebo). 470 pregnant women participated in the research.

Mwangi also showed that administering iron to pregnant women via food led to increased storage of iron in the foetus, which resulted in the child getting off to a better start after birth with iron deficiencies only appearing later on. The effects of iron deficiency include anaemia. During pregnancy, this can become a serious health problem. Anaemia occurs during pregnancy in 80% of the countries in the world, affecting 57% of pregnant women in Africa.

The applicability of the research results extends beyond Kenya. Each year, 20 million children worldwide are born with low birth weights. Administering iron can be an option for increasing birth weight in multiple areas.

Mwangi graduated cum laude from Maseno University in Kenya. In 2009, he received his Master’s diploma in Nutrition and Health in Wageningen, where he also obtained his doctorate in 2014. He is currently a postdoc researcher at the Division of Human Nutrition, where he performs research in collaboration with the Laboratory for Entomology into the absorption of iron and zinc from edible insects as an option for enriching the diets of Kenyan children.

The University Fund Wageningen Research Award is granted to a Wageningen researcher under 40 for his or her original and prominent scientific publication. The jury makes their assessment based on criteria such as creativity, the breadth and complexity of the study, and its importance for science and practice.

The jury also held the articles of the other two nominees, Peter Bourke and Prarthana Mohanraju, in high esteem.


Effect of Daily Antenatal Iron Supplementation on Plasmodium Infection in Kenyan Women: A Randomized Clinical Trial. Mwangi, MN; Roth, JM; Smit, MR; Trijsburg, L; Mwangi, AM; Demir, AY; Wielders, JPM; Mens, PF; Verweij, JJ; Cox, SE; Prentice, AM; Brouwer, ID; Savelkoul, HFJ; Andang'o, PEA; Verhoef, H. Jama. Journal of the American Medical Association, 2015 Sep 8, Vol.314(10), pp.1009-1020.

Source: press release WUR 9 March, 2017


Martin Mwangi PhD has just been granted the Research Award by Imke de Boer on March 7, 2017.


• Prof. dr. ir. APJ (Arthur) Mol, Rector Magnificus / Vice-president Executive Board Wageningen University & Research

• Prof. dr. RGF (Richard) Visser, Professor Wageningen University & Research Plant Breeding / Dean of Science

• Prof. dr. ir. IJM (Imke) de Boer, Professor Wageningen University & Research Animal Production Systems

• DC (Daan) Swarts PhD, Postdoctoral EMBO Advanced Fellow University of Zurich and winner of the Research Award 2015

Research Award 2015

Daan Swarts MSc, a postdoc employee affiliated to the Laboratory for Microbiology at Wageningen University & Research, was awarded the prize for his publication ‘DNA-guided DNA interference by a prokaryotic Argonaute’, which appeared last year in the leading scientific journal Nature. This article, of which he is the first author, describes the spectacular discovery of a microbial resistance system which can be seen as the evolutionary forerunner of the well-known RNA interference (RNAi) system in eukaryotes. His research opens up totally new routes to a targeted use of DNA in everything from bacteria and fungi to plant and human cells. He and his supervisor, Prof. John van der Oost, are named as inventors in two patents dealing with this discovery.

The jury was particularly impressed by Swarts’s unique discovery and the impact this could have on further genetic and biotechnological research. The jury believes the publication by Swarts et al is a breakthrough. According to the jury, the research can lead to new opportunities for curing hereditary diseases in humans.

Veni-grant 2018
Daan Swarts is rewarded again in 2018 for his excellent research skills. With his research in the development of a new genetic tool from the bacterial immune system 'Argonaute' he is one of the nine Wageningen winners. You can find more information about this research or the Veni grant here.

Daan Swarts is granted the Research Award by Jan Karel Mak (Chairman of the University Fund Wageningen)
Daan Swarts is granted the Research Award by Jan Karel Mak (Chairman of the University Fund Wageningen)


  • Prof. dr. Martin Kropff, Rector Magnificus
  • Johan van Arendonk, Dean of Science
  • Arthur Mol, directeur Wageningen Shool of Social Sciences
  • Dr. ir. Stan Brouns, winner Research Award 2012

Members of the jury that had an involvement in the article where excluded from the evaluation of that article to ensure an independent evaluation.

Research Award 2012

The paper of Stan Brouns concerns nothing less than the discovery of a major immune system of bacteria; A major mechanism of these microbes to survive.

It is shown that microbes have a region in their genome that is composed of specific repetitive sequences and in between these repeats viral sequences did occur. This genetic information of the bacterium was used as small RNAs, containing these viral sequence and with a very specific length, did occur. This by itself was intriguing as it reminded of the RNA interference mechanism that had previously been discovered in eukaryotes. Important studies that had led to the Nobel Prize and an honoree doctorate at Wageningen University & Research for David Baulcomb. So you might say the studies in bacteria are just an extension of what we already knew from eukaryotes. However this is not the case. Especially the work of Stan Brouns revealed the fantastic biological beauty of the prokaryotic immune system. He identified the enzyme that could cleave out the small RNA containing the viral sequence and most importantly he showed that it is used in a defense against the virus. In other words he discovered that microbes create an immune system by integrating small fragments of the viral genome in a specific place , called CRISPS, in their own genome. This region now serves as a memory of previous attacks, like our own immune system, but it can also be transferred to the daughter cells.

So a  paper in which a beautiful biological system is discovered. A discovery with a high impact for applications (as is illustrated by the patent)  This by itself is a sufficient justification for the award. However to judge a paper it is good to ask the question ; and what is next? Is this a paper that paves the way for new research ? This paper has been and is a corner stone for a major expansion at an international level of the CRISPS research.

It is also worth mentioning how this research started just 2 years before this publication in 2006. As a post doc in John van de Oost’s group, it is Stan who takes the decision to initiate a new research line on CRISPS Showing a very good sense for area’s that can lead to major novel discoveries. It is sense for intriguing novel biology, combined with excellent experimental skills that led to the seminal publication. A publication that during the last couple of years has been shown to be the fundament of a major new research line.  

Stan Brouns receives the award from Jan Karel Mak
Stan Brouns receives the award from Jan Karel Mak

Research Award 2008

The jury for the Research Award, comprising Prof. T. Bisseling, Prof. E.H. Bulte, Prof. Kemp, Dr B.G.J. Knols, Dr J.J.M. Vervoort and chaired by the Rector Magnificus, Prof. M.J. Kropff, has unanimously decided to present the Research Award of the Wageningen University Foundation to:

Dr J.J.B. Keurentjes for his article “The genetics of plant metabolism”, published in Nature Genetics (38, 842-849, 2006), of which he is lead author.

In addition, the jury has decided to give an honourable mention to Dr R. Rozendal for his article “Principle and perspectives of hydrogen production through biocatalyzed electrolysis”, published in the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy (31, 1632-1640, 2006).

Award winner Keurentjes

What is the importance of plant metabolites?

With his article, Keurentjes has played an important role in providing more understanding of the mechanisms that operate inside plants. Plants are a primary source of food for people, animals and many other organisms on earth. Besides the nutrients that provide us with energy, plants also produce a wide range of other substances, known as secondary metabolites. These are often complex molecules about which little is understood. Why do plants make them and what is their function? However, we do know something about some of these plant substances. For example, they can have a positive or negative effect when consumed, such as the flavonoids in fruit and vegetables. These not only provide variations in colour (yellow, red and purple pigments), but some flavonoids also act as antioxidants and may reduce damage to cells, slowing ageing and possibly preventing cancer and cardiovascular disease. Another example is taxol, a toxic substance in yew trees, which is also an important medicine if used properly. It has been used with great success in chemotherapy against various types of tumours. There are a great number of other secondary metabolites with important pharmaceutical or health-promoting effects that are used as the basis of traditional Chinese medicine.

Complex secondary metabolites such as taxol cannot be synthesised chemically, or only with great difficulty; the production of these substances depends almost entirely on plants. Plants are therefore outstanding factories for producing these types of valuable, but complex, molecules.

Honourable mention

National and international importance of water purification

René Rozendal has worked on the technology for a third generation of water purification installations. Partly due to the efforts of the Sub-department of Environmental Technology of WUR, in recent decades new forms wastewater purification have been introduced. Water purification is extremely important in the Netherlands and around the world. The first generation of wastewater treatment systems produced clean water, but also a great deal of active sludge as a by-product. The second generation of wastewater treatment systems, which became known primarily due to the work of Gatze Lettinga and associates, operated on the principle of anaerobic water purification, where clean water with much less active sludge was produced than was the case with the first generation. Rozendal's study has given an impulse to the third generation of wastewater treatment installations. This third generation not only produces clean water, but almost no active sludge, and perhaps most important, this type of installation can also contribute to the development of a hydrogen economy. Preliminary studies have shown that up to 20% of the need for energy in the Netherlands can be supplied with this new technology. An important advantage of this technology is that there is no competition with food production, which is often the case with other types of biofuels (biodiesel, bioethanol). The third generation of wastewater purification technology has excellent potential to develop into an important source of sustainable hydrogen, without environmentally harmful side effects. zich te ontwikkelen tot een duurzame waterstof bron, zonder milieu belastende bijwerkingen.

Rozendal's research is embedded in TTIW Wetsus, the centre for sustainable water technology. This is a research institute in which WUR, the University of Twente and recently Delft University of Technology have joined forces with many industrial partners to develop new technologies for sustainable water. Joost Keurentjes is granted the Research Award. Joost Keurentjes is granted the Research Award.

Previous award winners