Microbiologist Willem de Vos studies how the microbes that live on and in us determine whether we are healthy or ill. He talks fast, thinks fast and always likes to be making progress. ‘I feel it’s my job to do something with my knowledge.’
Every year in June, the Finnish capital Helsinki empties. The residents leave for their country homes and public life comes to a standstill. This is the month when Willem de Vos slows down. On sunny days he goes out on the water, in his boat; only on bad weather days does he work. The contrast with the rest of his life could not be starker. De Vos lives in both Finland and the Netherlands, because as well as having a large chair group in Wageningen, he is the head of two groups of researchers in Helsinki. Added to which, he does consultancy work, attends conferences and has spin-off companies. It is a life of hard work and a lot of time spent away from home. Catching one plane after the other.
Nevertheless, De Vos is quick to dismiss the idea that his life is taxing. ‘I have a fabulous life,’ he says. ‘Some people will think that I work hard. But everyone should do what they enjoy, and I am hugely fascinated by what I do.’ De Vos researches how micro-organisms work at the minutest level. His fascination began when he completed his first degree. Thanks to new techniques, microbiology was moving away from ‘stamp collecting’. It was no longer a question of simply observing which microbes lived in a particular place, which Antoni van Leeuwenhoek had already been doing, but trying to fathom the workings of bacteria and change their hereditary material. These days, he only has to open his laptop and he is immediately immersed in that world. ‘On occasion I’ve gone two stops too far on the tram in Helsinki.’
WILLEM DE VOS 1954, Apeldoorn
1972-1976 Degree in Biochemistry/Microbiology at the University of Groningen
1978-1983 PhD at the University of Groningen
1983 Is given a research group at NIZO (Dutch Institute for Dairy Research)
1987 Parttime professor of Bacterial Genetics at Wageningen University
1994 Fulltime professor of Microbiology at Wageningen University
2000-2007 director of TIFN (formerly WCFS)
2007 Distinguished Professor at Helsinki University
2011 Finland Academy Professor at Helsinki University
De Vos received the Spinoza Prize in 2008 and a year later became a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). He is married and has two daughters.
To juggle all these balls, De Vos has organized his life to maximize efficiency. He is in Wageningen only during even-numbered weeks and not a minute of that time is wasted. Outside his office, PhD candidates gather for ‘speed dates’ in which they receive intensive feedback. In the ‘uneven’ weeks that he spends in Helsinki, they are in touch by mail and phone, generating a stream of messages. De Vos offers a response almost immediately, at any time of the day or night. As he travels frequently, in addition to his airlift between Helsinki and Wageningen, his colleagues often do not know where he is; unlike most professors, De Vos manages his own diary – no Outlook, just a paper version in the breast pocket of his jacket. Today that diary dictates that he literally runs from one appointment to the next. During a break in a meeting, he sprints over to the canteen for the first part of our interview and a beaker of yoghurt. He has set aside 45 minutes to an hour. Speaking and thinking are also activities Willem de Vos does at a sprint. In an outpouring of words, he fires off sentences liberally sprinkled with English terms. Sentences that he often only half-finishes, as if his mouth can barely keep up with his brain. Sensible PhD candidates come to a meeting well prepared, otherwise they can’t keep up with the flow of tips for experiments and interesting literature. De Vos seems aware of his speaking pace. ‘Right?’ he asks now and then, with a rolling ‘r’, to check whether his interlocutor is still with him.
Years of working at this tempo have made De Vos a scientific star. He has the highest h-index of anyone at Wageningen UR, received the Spinoza Prize in 2008 and in Wageningen alone he supervises some one hundred PhD candidates. For decades he has been working on a wide range of subjects. His Microbiology group, for instance, researches the immune systems of bacteria and De Vos has discovered substances that micro-organisms use to ‘talk’ to one another. In recent years his research on the intestinal microbiome – the ecosystem of bacteria in our gut – has become particularly ‘hot’. Evidently, the bacteria in our bodies outnumber our own cells; they account for as much as 1 to 2 kilos of our body weight. These microbes are no accidental hitch-hikers but partners whose work is intimately interwoven with our health. A disturbance of this ecosystem contributes to diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome, obesity and gut inflammations. In 2013 De Vos showed that you can help intestinal patients by restoring their microbiome. With doctors from the AMC, he showed the positive effects of what is known as a stool transplant. This involved flushing out the old microbiome with its low diversity and replacing it the diversity of microbes living in healthy donor stool. The effect on patients suffering from a persistent – and dangerous – infection with the gut bacteria Clostridium difficile was very positive. The number of patients who showed improvement when given this treatment was so much greater than among those receiving the traditional treatment (with antibiotics) that the experiment was stopped prematurely. It was unethical to continue withholding the stool treatment from the members of the control group. Afterwards, patients also maintained their more diverse microbiome. This result appeared in the renowned journal The New England Journal of Medicine.
There is still so much more to discover about transplants of the microbiota, expects De Vos. He is currently working on an experiment to tackle metabolic syndrome, a precursor of type 2 diabetes. He hopes that his research will help to fine-tune such transplants in future. So that instead of using faecal matter, it will be possible to transfer a couple of species of bacteria, a core microbiome. To achieve this, he has deconstructed the procedure to find out exactly what makes it effective. ‘We hope to be able to extract a mechanism. Is it one microbe having an effect or do we need to use more microbes?’ Of course, complex diseases like diabetes cannot be cured entirely by stool transplants, says De Vos. They are too closely related to the patient’s lifestyle – their diet and exercise. ‘You won’t solve the problem but you can nudge things in the right direction.’ When De Vos talks about his microbiota research, an involuntary grin betrays how much pleasure it gives him. ‘It is a completely different ecosystem than, say, soil,’ he says. ‘Soil is also wonderful but this has more impact. It’s actually about life and death.’ He reads this relevance between the lines of the mails he receives; every year dozens of patients ask to participate in new transplant experiments. In the Netherlands this procedure is not yet generally available under the healthcare system. De Vos sometimes refers people to the United States for treatment. Evidently the symptoms sometimes cause so much suffering that people are prepared to make the journey. ‘Isn’t that incredible?’
That his research is having such an impact gives De Vos a sense of satisfaction. Scientists should be led by their curiosity, he believes, which isn’t the same as simply doing what takes your fancy. So wherever possible he looks for a practical impact, as in the case of the intestinal patients, but also for food producers. Naturally, this means he works frequently with industry. ‘My specialist area is inherently interesting to industry and I feel it’s my job to do something with my knowledge.’ Any such collaboration is only interesting if companies offer larger projects that involve a ‘structural knowledge enhancement’. In practice, this poses no problem at all. In R&D departments he comes across very clever researchers, people like Jan Knol at Danone. ‘A great guy with an impressive list of publications to his name.’ In 2012 he was appointed Special Chair in De Vos’s chair group.
Certainly in recent years there has been public concern about the intimate cooperation between universities and industry. The notion that companies are keen to steer scientific outcomes is alien to De Vos. A process to make better cheese either works or it does not. The reality is what it is. Moreover, most of his research is far in advance of actual products. ‘So I have never felt any influence. Never had a publication prevented.’ Of course, I can’t speak for other specialist areas, he says. Cooperation in food and pharmaceutical experiments is more problematical. They involve testing directly whether products are effective. ‘That’s a different ball game.’ Over the past ten years the microbiologist has himself been taking small steps as a business entrepreneur. For some discoveries, he has started spin-off companies. MicroDish, for example, makes dishes in which bacteria and cells are cultivated individually. De Vos was prompted to start this venture by his frustration that some of his patents were being mothballed. ‘Dreadful situation. They were acquired by a company that did nothing with them.’ What’s more, MicroDish gave his former colleague Colin Ingham the chance to start a company. De Vos now has an advisory role at MicroDish. It is just a small part of his work and it won’t make him rich. ‘It’s not going to be a gold mine. If you want to earn money, you’d do better to simply work hard.’
De Vos has never considered switching to industry. ‘I know the disadvantages.’ After gaining his doctorate, De Vos spent years working for the commercial diary institute NIZO in Ede. ‘Youthful folly,’ he says jokingly. Early on especially, he felt constricted by the hierarchical structure that demanded accountability. He remembers a time clock that turned red when you punched in too late or left too early, and which kept a precise record of how many hours you over- or under-worked. ‘And after six months I was nearly fired because I had organized drinks after work.’ Naturally he is pleased that he had the chance to become a parttime – and later fulltime – professor in Wageningen. The freedom that he himself very much needs is something De Vos is keen to give his researchers. They work independently and are given a lot of responsibility. While this is efficient, it is also underpinned by a clear philosophy. ‘I want to create the conditions in which people can thrive,’ he says. So everyone gets the facilities to do their work and is bothered as little as possible with ‘hassle’. Accordingly, he is irritated by barriers thrown up by the organization, like the requirement to keep an accurate record of photocopying expenses or the installation of coffee dispensers that work only with a card. ‘I’m not going to keep track of how much coffee people drink, am I?’ Similarly in his specialist field, he applauds it when people offer their own ideas and initiatives. If they convince him, people can get to work. ‘I like to be surprised.’
Ultimately, however, he expects a result and De Vos can be impatient. While he does not get involved in everything, he does know exactly what everyone is working on, and he intervenes when progress falters. Recently, the sixty-year-old De Vos has sometimes wondered how long he wants to continue working at this pace. In any event, he will be staying at Microbiology for another four years. After that it will be time to step aside for someone else. He has already stopped applying for grants. ‘I don’t think it is ethical for an old scientist like me to compete with young people for funding.’ Naturally he enjoys the recognition that he is getting in this phase of his career, particularly the Spinoza Prize. ‘It shows that you have achieved something in your life and that that has been recognized.’ But he also derives pleasure from the credit received by researchers he has trained. The talented holder of a tenure track position or a PhD candidate who wins a research prize. ‘Sometimes I am surprised by everything that people can do with “my” – or ultimately their own – subject.’ This does not mean that before long Willem de Vos will only be seen on his boat off the coast of Helsinki. He still sees all sorts of ways he can make himself useful: creating innovation within companies, with his own spin-off companies and writing evaluations of Dutch and foreign institutes. There is enough to do. Meanwhile the beaker of yoghurt is empty and the outpouring of words has come to an abrupt halt. ‘It is five to two,’ De Vos says, his manner friendly but resolute. He walks hurriedly outside where he breaks into another sprint, on his way to his meeting.