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Grant for Genomics, Probiotics Study at Wageningen

by 5m Editor
2 February 2010, at 8:42a.m.

NETHERLANDS - Two researchers at Wageningen University have received substantial research grants from the European Research Council (ERC).

The European research organisation ERC (European Research Council) has allocated around €5 million to two prominent professors at Wageningen University. Professor of Microbiology, Willem de Vos, and Animal Genomics researcher, Professor Martien Groenen, will each receive around €2.5 million in order to carry out their research projects in the life sciences over the next five years.

These two researchers from Wageningen University (part of Wageningen UR) will receive the 'Advanced Grants' because of their qualities as European research leaders and because of their proposals for the cutting-edge research for which they had submitted research proposals. The size of the ERC awards is comparable with that of the prestigious Spinoza prize in the Netherlands.

Professor Martien Groenen

The origin of new species has intrigued scientists ever since Darwin's time. Professor Groenen, in his research project 'Molecular characterisation of genetic factors in the pig under selection during speciation, domestication and breeding', is aiming to gain more insight into the way in which new species arise. To do this, he is comparing the genome of the modern pig with that of a number of closely related species such as the warthog from Java and the bearded swine. Recent technological developments now make it possible to sequence the whole genome of a large number of individuals. By comparing the genomes of individuals from various pig breeds, the research team aims to obtain detailed insight into the changes in the genome since the pig was domesticated around 9000 years ago. The availability of DNA from thousand-year-old bones is of great importance in this research. The team is also mapping more recent changes that have taken place as a result of selection by breeding in the pig sector. The new insights provide information about evolution and may also help to make selection in pig breeding more specific.

Professor Groenen (born in 1958) has been a professor at Wageningen University since 2002. He has been involved in mapping the genomes of various farm animals since the beginning of the 1990s. In 2004, this resulted in the publication of the genome sequence of the chicken (and three articles in Nature). He plays a prominent role in the international chicken and swine genome sequencing committees and at present he is involved in international projects that are sequencing the genomes of the pig, turkey, duck and great tit.

Professor Willem M. de Vos

More than a thousand microbe species colonise our intestines in numbers far greater than the cells in our body. Furthermore, the coding capacity of the combined genome of these microbes (known as the metagenome) is many times larger than that of the human genome. These microorganisms work together to break down food, stimulate our immune system and are also involved in communication with our body. The new research 'Exploitation of Intestinal Microbes' focuses on bacteria that communicate with us and interact with the mucus layer that separates the intestinal and bacterial cells. This layer serves as a source of food and is involved in the attachment of the common intestinal resident Akkermansia muciniphila and the probiotic lactic acid bacterium Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, respectively. This research will contribute to advancing our understanding of the molecular nature of the interactions between these bacteria and will provide the opportunity to develop improved food or probiotic bacteria.

Professor de Vos (born in 1954) obtained his PhD doctorate cum laude (highest honors) at the University of Groningen for research partly carried out at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin. He worked for more than a dozen years at NIZO Food Research as a research manager. He has been a professor at Wageningen University since the age of 32, first as professor in bacterial genetics and later as professor of microbiology. In the period 2000-2007, he was programme director for TI Food & Nutrition, one of the top technological institutes in the Netherlands. In 2008, Willem de Vos received the Spinoza prize awarded by the NWO (Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research). In 2009, he was appointed a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences and Arts (KNAW). In Finland, he is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Helsinki where some of the ERC work will be carried out in collaboration with Wageningen University.

European Research Council

The European Research Council (ERC) was set up in 2007 to enhance the quality of academic research in all disciplines in European countries. This is the second time the Advanced Grants competition prize has been awarded. ERC finances excellent, bottom-up and ground-breaking research. The Netherlands were awarded sixteen times. Professor Kafatos, who chairs the ERC, believes in investing in the most talented people, this being even more essential during an economic recession as it can have a positive effect on Europe and its economy.