Three Wageningen top researchers win ERC grants to boost cutting-edge research

Published on
March 28, 2019

Three top researchers John van der Oost, Lourens Poorter and Dolf Weijers have won an Advanced Grant of the European Research Council (ERC). The grants, 2.5 million euros each, enable the Wageningen researchers to explore new ideas in their research area: proteins, tropical forests, and the plant compass.

Argonaut proteins

John van der Oost: ARGO - The Quest of the Argonautes - from Myth to Reality

All known life forms, from bacteria to humans, contain Argonaut proteins. Just like the heroes in Greek mythology did, these proteins play an important, controlling and protective role in biology. A few of those Argonaut proteins have been studied in detail in recent years. However, numerous different types have recently been discovered. With a team of five to six people, John van der Oost will study the biological function and biochemical mechanisms of these new variants in this ARGO project. After characterization, the team will try to adjust the functionality of an Argonaut protein by introducing protein domains with various functions, and then improving them through so-called laboratory evolution.

Eventually, natural and synthetic Argonaut variants will be selected for different applications, from biotechnology to gene therapy. These new enzymes could therefore be an alternative to the well-known CRISPR-Cas enzymes. The ambitious ARGO expedition will start soon. The researchers expect that this quest, just like in the classical journey, will lead to all kinds of exciting adventures and beautiful discoveries.

Tropical forests

Lourens Poorter: PANTROP - Biodiversity and recovery of forest in tropical landscapes

Tropical forests are global hotspots of biodiversity, play key roles in the global carbon and water cycle and deliver crucial ecosystem services but are threatened by human-induced climate change, deforestation and biodiversity loss.

In his ERC research, Lourens Poorter and his team focus on forests that regrow after complete forest removal for agriculture (so called secondary forests), because they cover large areas, have great potential to recover biodiversity and carbon, and are the basis for ecosystem restoration. The key challenge is to understand and predict forest resilience: when, and under what conditions are regrowing forests able to recover and have the same quality and functioning as old-growth forests?

This study aims to understand and predict the resilience of tropical forests to human-driven disturbance by analysing the effects of continent and biogeography, climate, landscape, and biodiversity on forest recovery rate. The researchers will conduct controlled experiments on three continents (Neotropics, Africa, and Australia) in climatically dry and wet forest types to assess long-term resilience by expanding a unique Neotropical network of 60 sites to the pantropics. The team also will analyse the role of the landscape on forest recovery by doing a natural experiment along forest cover gradients. And they try to understand how different kinds of diversity affect succession and ecosystem functioning through a biodiversity removal experiment.

The study addresses key questions in ecology and advances the understanding how human-driven climate change, landscape degradation, and biodiversity loss affect forest resilience and succession. The insights can be applied to reduce human impacts on tropical forests, design resilient and multifunctional tropical landscapes, and design effective forest restoration strategies.

Plant compass

Dolf Weijers: DIRNDL - Directions in Development

Multicellular organisms have a front, a back, a top and a bottom, an outside and an inside. To develop normally, each cell in the body needs to know where each side is, so that it can adjust the way it divides, grows and differentiates. This is critical to maintain single cell layers in human organs and prevent uncontrolled cell division, but is equally important in defining the growth and development of plants. Somehow, the information about what is the up/down/out/inside of the entire organism needs to be translated to landmarks in each cell - so-called cell polarity - so the cell can use this information. In humans, yeast and animals, it is relatively well-understood how cell polarity is generated. In plants however, this process has remained a big mystery. One reason that so little is known about how cell polarity is generated in plant cells may be that this process is very important already early during embryo development, and therefore very difficult to identify.

In a previous ERC Starting Grant, Dolf Weijers’ team has made important steps in developing the tools to study cell polarity generation in the young plant embryo. While doing so, the team recently discovered components of a plant cellular compass, that may just be part of the mysterious cell polarity system. Quite intriguingly, the components of this plant compass resemble an important component of the animal and human cell compass. In the ERC Advanced Grant project DIRNDL (Directions in Development), Dolf Weijers and his team will build upon their expertise in plant embryo development and on the identification of the new plant compass to systematically identify the genes and proteins that build the plant cellular compass and help cells to align their cell division to the axes of the compass.


The European Research Council, set up by the European Union in 2007, invested €540 million to boost cutting-edge research. 222 scientists won the European Research Council’s Advanced Grants , out of more than two thousand research proposals.

The European funding organisation is meant for excellent frontier research. Every year, it selects and funds the very best, creative researchers of any nationality and age, to run projects based in Europe. To date, the ERC has funded some 9,000 top researchers at various stages of their careers, and over 50,000 postdocs, PhD students and other staff working in their research teams.