Science - September 20, 2018

Spinoza laureate John van der Oost wants to stimulate discussion on GMOs

Albert Sikkema

Microbiologist John van der Oost will use his Spinoza Prize worth 2.5 million euros to develop additional tools for cutting DNA. But he also wants to use the funds to stimulate the discussion on genetic engineering in secondary schools.

On 12 September, microbiologist John van der Oost was handed the Spinoza Prize worth 2.5 million euros and the accompanying figurine of the seventeenth-century thinker Baruch Spinoza. © NWO, Bram Saeys

On 12 September, Van der Oost received the Spinoza Prize from research financier NWO for his research into CRISPR/Cas, a bacterial antivirus system that can be used to edit the genome of plants and humans.

The prize, which is the highest award in Dutch science, will allow him to broaden his research. ‘There are still various CRISPR variants in bacteria that we know very little about. We want to study those in more detail.’ Furthermore, he would like to research the Argonaute protein, which might serve as an alternative in the modification of DNA of microorganisms, plants and animals.

Synthetic cell
Van der Oost also wants to spend part of the funds on the creation of a synthetic cell. ‘I’m part of a large consortium that receives 18 million euros from NWO’s Gravitation programme to develop a synthetic cell. This is a lot of money, but it’s not enough.’ Van der Oost thinks that they will only succeed in building a living cell ‘if we use the evolutionary principles to arrive at a feasible system.’

Finally, Van der Oost also wants to revive the discussion on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). ‘Terrorism expert Beatrice de Graaf, who received a Stevin Prize from NWO earlier this year, developed a module that allows teachers in secondary schools to teach about to current events. The aim is to develop a joint module to get the GMO discussion going in schools.’

Genetic modification is the source of natural variation. In that sense, we all are GMOs.

Van der Oost mainly intends to put facts on the table. ‘Life on Earth develops through cell division and the copying of DNA. During the copying process, small errors are made, and pieces of DNA are exchanged. As such, genetic modifications occur very often in nature. It is the source of natural variation. In that sense, we all are GMOs.’

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  • Toon van Eijk

    Allereerst wil ik John van der Oost hartelijk feliciteren met de Spinozaprijs. Hierboven wordt gesproken over het ontwikkelen van een synthetische LEVENDE cel. Dat roept wel de vraag op of we een onderscheid dienen te maken tussen synthetisch leven en biologisch leven? Ook op het seminar in maart ‘What is life? werd de vraag gesteld hoe bij een onderscheid tussen biologisch leven en artificieel leven, artificieel leven dan gedefinieerd wordt - ook als we eigenlijk nog geen ‘clue’ hebben wat biologisch leven is. 'Leven' als een 'emergent property' definiëren klopt mijns inziens, maar helpt dat ons verder?
    Met vriendelijke groet,
    Toon van Eijk
    PS: Wie wil weten hoe Spinoza dacht over 'leven' verwijs ik graag naar mijn boek: Spinoza in het licht van bewustzijnsontwikkeling, 2017 (met name, hoofdstuk 4).