News - August 13, 2019

The wonderful world of WUR

Roelof Kleis,Tessa Louwerens,Albert Sikkema

World firsts, ground-breaking research, the best scientists from far and wide: there is much more amazing stuff going on at Wageningen than just the topics you will come across on your degree course. To welcome you to this wonderful world, Resource has selected some highlights from recent WUR research in the five science groups.


Bacteria that keep you slim
Microbiologist Willem de Vos studies how the creatures that live and on and in our bodies determine whether we get sick. He is particularly interested in Akkermansia muciniphila, a bacterium that is found naturally in the human intestine. This bacterium helps curb obesity and possibly diseases such as fatty liver and intestinal inflammation as well. A special protein in the bacterium’s external membrane is probably responsible for the health effect. The bacterium does not need to actively make and secrete the protein. ‘That means we don’t need living bacteria, which makes it easier to use them in food products,’ explains De Vos.

Pure nature from the lab
Because consumers increasingly want ‘pure nature’ without E numbers, food producers are looking hard for ‘natural’ ingredients. Only they are not always readily available, so scientists make them in the lab. ‘If manufacturers add a substance, they have to report it as an E number,’ explains food technology expert Eddy Smid. ‘But you don’t have to do that if you add a bacterium that produces the same thing. These are often exactly the same substances as in the E numbers, which are usually also produced using natural methods, but consumers don’t trust those E numbers.’

Resilient bananas
Our bananas come from large plantations that all grow the same banana variety. A nasty fungus, TR4, is on the rise and threatening to damage all those plantations. Fernando Garcia-Bastidas scanned 250 wild banana varieties to find resistance genes that could protect the banana from this fungus. He did indeed find some. He is now working for the biotech company Keygene on new, resistant banana species — species in the plural, because the current monoculture is very vulnerable.

Tomato jeans
Newly appointed professor Luisa Trindade wants to make jeans from tomato plants. Based on the ‘no waste’ principle, she wants to use all parts of tomato and bell pepper plants, including the stalks. Trindade thinks you could use the fibrous stalks to make textiles. There are already hemp jeans. The professor has worked with a plant breeding company to develop three new hemp varieties for producing textiles. But she wants more. ‘Yields need to increase, it should be easier to extract the fibres and we might be able to get vegetable oil and medicines from hemp too.’ Trindade is breeding crops for the biobased economy.


Fewer lab animals
Wageningen researchers are using fewer and fewer lab animals. In 2016, WUR used 30,000 animals in tests, 3000 fewer than in 2015. It used twice as many back in 2011. WUR is carrying out fewer experiments of the kind that need lab animals. That is partly because there are now alternatives that do not require animal testing. Fish, chickens and mice are the most commonly used lab animals.

Seek and destroy: chicken mite
Wageningen is looking for new biological crop protection agents to combat the chicken mite in poultry farming. That is urgently needed after the Dutch fipronil crisis, in which the banned chicken mite pesticide fipronil was found in the eggs of dozens of poultry farms, which meant millions of eggs had to be destroyed. Wageningen Livestock Research wants to use ‘integrated pest management’ to find and kill the mite. This method combines rapid screening with the use of biological agents, such as the natural enemies of the chicken mite. The institute plans to test this alternative approach at 30 poultry farms.

Spotting endangered animal traces
Researchers at Wageningen Food Safety Research have developed a test to detect materials from endangered animals or plants in traditional medicines. ‘The new test can identify almost every species of plant or animal in the medicine in one go,’ says expertise group manager Esther Kok. The researchers tried out their new test on various medicines that had been confiscated by the customs department. There was no match at all with the label information in four of the samples. Raw materials from an endangered species, the brown bear, were found in one specimen. In another case, the label said ‘brown bear’ but in fact it was pig. Kok: ‘Sometimes they mention exotic, expensive ingredients for marketing purposes that aren’t actually in there at all.’

The complex sex life of eels
Things don’t look good for the eel. That is why researchers have been trying for years to breed eels in captivity. That is tricky because the eel has an incredibly complex sex life. Arjan Palstra, a scientist at Livestock Research, and his colleagues have managed to get eels to reproduce in captivity for the first time. This brings commercial eel nurseries one step closer. Even so, a lot more research is needed, as nobody has managed to get the eel larvae to eat anything, so they die after a couple of weeks.

Sticking like frogs
Scientists like to copy smart ideas from nature. Take the tree frog: how does it manage to stick to surfaces in its wet environment? Julian Langowski of the Experimental Zoology group has studied this question. He got a PhD with distinction for his efforts. It turned out the frog’s feet have been designed in such a way that Van der Waals forces (a kind of electromagnetic force) provide the necessary adhesion. That knowledge is now being used to give materials more grip. That could be useful for surgeons in operations or robots that have to pluck wet fruit.


Millions for phenotyping
Wageningen and Utrecht plant scientists are setting up a joint new research centre for phenotyping, where they plan to study the development of plants under a range of environmental conditions. ‘For example, we want to investigate systematically how plants respond to environmental signals such as diseases and pests, soil life, cloudy weather, wind and rain,’ says Professor Marc Aarts. The new centre will cost 22 million euros. The research funding organization NWO will pay half of that and the two universities the other half.

Modifying DNA with CRISPR-Cas
The Wageningen researcher most likely to get a Nobel Prize in the next few years is microbiologist John van der Oost. He is one of the people who came up with CRISPR-Cas, a molecular technology that allows exceptionally precise changes to be made to DNA. CRISPR-Cas is derived from an immune system protecting bacteria from viruses. It has now been developed for medical applications and for use in plant breeding, for example to make plants able to cope with disease, droughts and salinization.

Odour traps for malaria mosquitoes
Children with malaria attract more malaria mosquitoes than children who don’t have malaria. Wageningen entomologists know why. Children with malaria secrete three specific odour compounds in their sweat that the malaria mosquito recognizes. Scientists can use that knowledge to make better odour traps to catch and combat malaria mosquitoes.

Duckweed burger
It is some way off at the moment but one day we will be eating duckweed veggie burgers. The plant has a very high protein content. It is also an interesting option as a protein source because it grows so fast — all you need is shallow water and sunlight. But it won’t be called a ‘duckweed burger’, says Jurriaan Mes, a food and health researcher at Wageningen Food & Biobased Research. ‘Consumer studies show that “duckweed” doesn’t sound too appetizing. We’d do better calling it water lentils, as that is another name for the plant,’ explains Mes.

Dandelion tyres for racing bicycles
In the past year, scientists at Wageningen Plant Research have developed a prototype of the Fortezza Flower Power in partnership with tyre manufacturer Vredestein. It is the first racing bike tyre in the world to be made from latex from the roots of the Russian dandelion (Taraxacum kok-saghyz). At present, latex comes from the rubber tree, which requires tropical rainforest to be felled for its cultivation. The scientists are currently studying how to breed dandelions that are better suited for rubber production.


Hit the roof with solar panels
Solar farms need to be set up in the Netherlands if it is to reach its climate targets. But where should they be installed? Friso van der Zee investigated this for the ministry of Agriculture. The best option is on our roofs. That is perfectly possible: the Netherlands needs 90 km2 of solar panels to hit its energy targets and there are 160 km2 available in suitable roofs, in theory. Solar farms on agricultural land or in nature areas are less desirable, says the researcher, but there are also polluted sites or old rubbish tips that would be fine for generating solar energy. It is a question of tailored solutions.

Butterfly paint
What if you never needed to climb the ladder again to repaint the window frames? A paint that doesn’t fade has now been developed by Jessica Clough, a researcher in the Physical Chemistry and Soft Matter chair group, and her colleagues. They drew inspiration from peacocks, butterflies and beetles. Clough: ‘There are insect fossils millions of years old whose colours are as strong as ever.’ The researchers managed to replicate the nanostructures of the animal kingdom and create paint that never fades and is not toxic. The paint can be manufactured but is too expensive as yet because it is made in the lab. Clough thinks it will be cheaper in a factory.

Intestine on a chip
WUR researchers are working with colleagues at the University of Twente on an intestine on a chip: two glass plates with a wafer-thin layer of intestinal cells in between. This lets them study the interaction between various substances in the human gut. This chip is unusual in that it is a dynamic model: the intestinal contents flow down one side of the gut cells and the bloodstream flows down the other side. ‘That gives a much more realistic approximation of the intestines,’ says WUR toxicologist Hans Bouwmeester. The intestine on a chip can help reduce the need for lab animals.

The ocean’s waste pit
Spitsbergen is the ocean’s waste pit in the Arctic. Some beaches are littered with large pieces of plastic, nets, buoys and other waste. ‘It is important to know what actions you need to take to reduce the amount of plastic waste in this area. So if you find fishing nets, you want to know exactly which fishing company is responsible,’ says Wouter Jan Strietman of Wageningen Economic Research. That is why he is investigating the origins of the waste.  


From cloudy to crystal clear
You sometimes see apparently abrupt transitions in nature. Ponds that were cloudy suddenly become crystal clear, for example. That is not chance. Leading researcher Marten Scheffer, professor of Aquatic Ecology and Water Quality Management, discovered the mathematical rules behind such so-called tipping points. The theory seems to apply to a wide range of natural phenomena, including migraines for instance. His research is regularly published in the scientific journals Science and Nature.

Do forests recover after felling?
Tropical forests recover quite quickly after felling. After 20 years, the number of species is back up at 80 per cent of what it was before the felling. That seems to be good news. ‘Seems to be’ because only 34 per cent of those species are the ones that were in the old forest. So things are never the same as before. These findings come from large-scale research by Wageningen forestry ecologists in South America. An important question is whether the new forest restores the old functions. After all, biodiversity is not just about the number of species but also about the mix of species. That question is now being investigated.

Citizen science
The climate is changing rapidly and that means so is nature. The biologist Arnold van Vliet is studying the phenological changes — changes in annually recurring phenomena in nature. When do plants start to flower? When does the first peewit appear? Van Vliet is using ‘citizen science’ to keep track of what nature is doing. He has developed online platforms, such as a nature calendar and sites on mosquitoes, ticks and allergies, that give him a wealth of data for further research.

Microclimate in the city
We know a lot about the climate on the big scale but what about the microclimates in cities? Cities are becoming hotter and hotter in the summer, in part due to climate change. That, in combination with air pollution, is leading to unhealthy conditions. Meteorology and Air Quality researcher Bert Heusinkveld is aiming to understand the processes in the air above the city. Amsterdam is the testing ground for this research. To map how the city ‘breathes’, Heusinkveld placed measuring equipment on the roof of the Carlton Hotel just before the summer.

Who is were?

Agrotechnology & Food Sciences: the food researchers are in Helix, the agrotechnology scientists in Aix.

Animal Sciences: most are in Zodiac.

Plant Sciences: most are in Radix. The plant scientists use the Unifarm greenhouses round the back for experiments.

Social Sciences: the group is mainly in Leeuwenborch, the wine-red building near the campus.

Environmental Sciences: most of their activities are in Lumen and Gaia.