Highlight 7: Prof. Willem de Vos, 1992-2017

1992 – 2017; living off each other

Bacteria closely collaborate in communities, so why not scientists? Perhaps observing bacteria for so long inspired Prof. Willem de Vos as a chair to expand the Laboratory of Microbiology to around 100 scientists. He started 3 complementary research groups - Microbial Physiology, Molecular Ecology, and Bacterial Genetics, all led by personal professors – and used a series of inter-disciplinary PhD positions to foster collaboration between the groups.

Model for syntrophy

The new ‘synergistic’ approach delivered results, leading to a range of groundbreaking new insights. One in particular was a detailed analysis of Syntrophomonas fumaroxidans, an anaerobe that could play a key role in wastewater purification; in close collaboration with methanogens it converts propionate into methane. Later, this anaerobic bacterium became the model for syntrophy that Dr Caroline Plugge and Dr Xiuzhu Dong studied with Prof. Alfons Stams who, since then, has been leading the Microbial Physiology research group.

Soil bioremediation

During this era, new activities were started in the area of microbial dehalogenation, aimed at soil bioremediation using Desulfitobacterium as the model system. Hauke Smidt pioneered this research in his PhD before becoming Group Leader Molecular Ecology and obtaining a personal chair.

Prof. van der Oost’s Bacterial Genetics group continued to study thermophilic archaea, together with Thijs Ettema, who obtained his cum laude PhD in 2005 and later became a professor in Uppsala. They focussed on Sulfolobus solfataricus, which flourishes at 80˚C in a sulphur-rich environment, determined its genome and started to mine this and other genomes.

Advanced ERC Grants

Prof. Willem de Vos and Prof. Alfons Stams were awarded Advanced ERC grants, in 2010 and 2012 respectively, and Dr Stan Brouns an ERC Starting Grant in 2013. This testifies to the international recognition of the laboratory’s work.