Is a microorganism that utilizes intestinal mucus important? Yes: because it is the cornerstone of the personalized microbiome, now recognized as key in health and disease. Pioneering insight in this area was delivered via a new research line on intestinal microbiology started by Prof. Willem de Vos, when appointed as Professor of Microbiology in 1995, and Dr Erwin Zoetendal the first of a profusion of PhD students to study this rapidly- emerging new field. They discovered what is now known as the personalised and stable microbiome, showed the first relationship between intestinal microbes and human genetics, and pioneered the characteristics of the upper intestinal tract and mucosal and colonic microbes.
The team developed a phylogenetic microarray platform, the Human Intestinal Tract (HIT) Chip, pioneered by Mirjana Rajilić, PhD cum laude in 2007. Amongst many key findings, this high-throughput tool enabled the discovery of core microbiota and confirmed the long-term stability of the intestinal microbiome.
Partly based on this and other previous work, Prof. Willem de Vos became, in 2008, the first microbiologist to win the Spinoza Award, also known as the Dutch Nobel Prize. By then he had discovered, together with Muriel Derrien and others, the dedicated intestinal mucus utilizer Akkermansia muciniphila, named in honour of Dr Antoon Akkermans. Now recognized as the mucosal gatekeeper in a healthy intestinal tract, this anaerobe is becoming a platform for modulating health via microbial therapies.
The European MetaHIT project (2008-2012) also involved Special Professor of Metagenomics Michiel Kleerebezem, and revealed the vast coding capacity of the colonic metagenome. Also linked to the MetaHIT project, but on the industrial side, was Jan Knol. He was appointed in 2012 as a Special Professor to study fundamental aspects of early-life microbiology and its influence on intestinal microbiology.