GCHERA WAP Laureate 2017

Professor Dirk Inzé
Director Center for Plant Systems Biology
VIB-Ghent University
Zwijnaarde 9052, Belgium

DirkInze-cropped-125pxl Early in his career, Dirk Inzé developed a fascination to understand the molecular systems that rule plant organ growth, biomass productivity and seed yield. Plant organ growth is the result of two highly controlled processes: cell division and cell expansion. In particular, organ growth is determined by the number of cells, the speed at which they divide and the developmental window during which the key process of cell division occurs. In the 80s – early 90s, Dirk Inzé has made many seminal contributions to our understanding of cell cycle regulation in plants. He was the first to identify and/or functionally characterize numerous core components of the plant cell cycle machinery, including cyclin-dependent kinases (CDKs), cyclins, CDK inhibitors, E2F/DP transcription factors, components of the anaphase promoting complex/cyclosome (APC/C) and others. This pioneering work has led to many high-ranked publications and reviews, and was awarded the prestigious prize of the Körber Foundation (Germany), presented by the German president in 1994. Furthermore, Dirk Inzé wrote the cell cycle chapter for the globally used student textbook “Biochemistry and Molecular Biology of Plants” (Ed. Buchanan, Gruissem, Jones). In 2005, he was awarded the prestigious Francqui Prize and a Francqui Chair at the University of Antwerp for his cell cycle work. Dirk Inzé also received the esteemed five-yearly prize of the FWO, the principal research funding agency in Belgium.

Soon after discovering the major players of the plant cell cycle, Dirk Inzé realized that his research could benefit crop growth and yield improvement. To validate this concept, he founded the spin-off company CropDesign in 1998, with the help of the Tech Transfer Offices of Ghent University and VIB. Inzé was a major driving force in presenting the business plan to venture capital investors and in guiding the company in its early life. Right from the start, CropDesign was very successful and identified many genes with pivotal roles in crop yield. In 2006, the 87-employee spin-off was sold to BASF. Currently, CropDesign is still based in Ghent. The translation from basic research performed in Inzé’s lab to the start–up of a highly successful company stimulated numerous young people to initiate a scientific career in plant research. In addition, the presence of CropDesign at the Technology Park of Ghent University was a strong pole of attraction for other agricultural biotech companies to settle on campus, including Bayer and Syngenta. Currently, nearly 1000 people are working on basic plant biology and crop improvement at the Agro-Biotech campus in Ghent.

In 2002, Dirk Inzé was appointed Science Director of the VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology (PSB). Under his directorship, PSB transformed to one of the world-leading centers working on various aspects of plant development and responses to abiotic stresses. Currently, about 300 people work for PSB of whom 53% are non-Belgians with 34 different nationalities. The scientific excellence of PSB is reflected in the fact that 6 of the 17 group leaders, including Dirk Inzé himself, belong to the 1% most cited authors in their field worldwide (ISI highly-cited scientists). Furthermore, the center combines first-rate research with outstanding technology transfer, resulting in large-scale win-win collaborations with over 15 companies from Europe and North- and South-America. Under the leadership of Inzé, PSB became one of the most important plant research centers worldwide, and one of the main drivers of the local agro-biotech ecosystem.

Even during his directorship, Dirk Inzé continues to lead his own successful research group focusing on plant organ growth and biomass productivity. His group of some 30 researchers is well supported by various large grants, including the prestigious Advanced ERC Grant of the EU. During the last 15 years, Inzé’s research extensively contributed to the understanding of the molecular mechanisms that control growth. His lab has molecularly characterized many genes that promote organ growth and has gained a world-leading position in plant organ growth regulation. In recent years, the lab remarkably observed that the binary combination of growth promoting genes in the majority of cases leads to additive or synergistic effects on organ size in Arabidopsis. Furthermore, triple gene combinations were shown to have dramatic, positive effects on leaf, root, seed and flower sizes. Also in maize, combinations of growth-enhancing genes have additive effects on organ size, even in hybrid backgrounds (see below). These findings have strengthened the awareness globally, both in academia and industry, that engineering gene combinations has a high potential to contribute significantly to crop yield improvement. The recent development of genome editing technology for crop plants accelerates this development.

Growth is a quantitative process that requires advanced imaging systems. The Inzé Lab has successfully built multiple custom-made imaging robots to measure growth in Arabidopsis, wheat and maize plants over time. By daily watering and weighing the plants, these robots allow for testing large numbers of plants exposed to different watering regimes. For example, in the PHENOVISION platform, 400 maize plants are grown simultaneously from seedling stage to full maturity and monitored using RGB, thermal and hyperspectral detection systems. Inzé’s expertise in imaging plant growth continues to contribute to our knowledge of plant growth regulation, and this is well-recognized internationally.

Many environmental stresses, including mild drought stress, cause a reduction in plant growth and, in the case of crops, significant yield losses. The Inzé Lab is studying the mechanisms that lead to growth reduction upon water deficit, both in Arabidopsis and in maize. The team identified a highly-wired transcriptional network that regulates both growth under mild drought stress conditions and the altered expression of stress defense genes. This work highlights the complexity of stress responses and the necessity to