Dirk Inzé receives the Francqui Prize for Biological and Medical Sciences 2005


Prof. Dirk Inzé has made two major contributions to plant biology. In the 1980s, he and his co-workers conducted extensive research on the mechanisms with which plants protect themselves against adverse growing conditions, such as low temperatures and a shortage of water. He identified several genes that are of fundamental importance for the resistance of plants.

The last 15 years, Prof. Inzé has carried out intensive research on cell division in plants. Plants are composed of billions of cells and, during their course of life, plants continuously form new cells in the growing points that organize themselves into new leaves, stems, flowers, seeds and other structures. This cell propagation is thus the most important factor contributing to the form of plants and to the rate at which plants develop. Cells are able to duplicate themselves through a complex molecular mechanism that ensures that the DNA present in each cell is copied exactly and divided between two daughter cells. Prof. Inzé and his colleagues have made a very great contribution to the elucidation of the molecular processes that control cell division in plants.

Prof. Inzé has shown that a number of elements of the molecular control system in plants are very similar to the mechanisms that also regulate cell division in humans. Even though plants and animals began to evolve separately more than a billion years ago, their basic mechanisms of cell division have largely remained the same. Thus, Prof. Inzé has recently found new genes in plants that have now been shown to play a role in human cell division as well. Given that a breakdown in the cell division process in humans causes cancer, the research on cell division in plants also has import for the world of medicine. Prof. Inzé's team is the world leader in research on cell division in plants.

In the next few years, Prof. Inzé's ambition is to further expand our understanding of the mechanisms that control cell division in plants. Biological processes are extremely complex, and scientists now believe that new approaches are needed to comprehend this complexity. For the last three years, Prof. Inzé has directed the Department of Plant Systems Biology at Ghent University - and which is also a department of the Flanders Interuniversity Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) - and with his co-workers he intends to plumb the depths of the complexity with which plants regulate cell division and therefore growth. The approach that they are using is called 'systems biology' - a brand new branch of biology that strives to make precise models of complex processes through the combination of molecular biology, high-throughput functional studies, and bioinformatics. Prof. Inzé is interested in how the cell proliferation process is integrated with the development of plants. This research is not only of very great fundamental importance, it also has immense economic potential. In fact, the elucidation of growth processes in plants is an important step forward in obtaining plants with a considerably higher yield.

It is Prof. Inzé's conviction that plants have an important role in building a sustainable economy. Indeed, plants have the potential to provide partial solutions to the most pressing challenges that lie before humankind in the coming 100 years: providing sufficient high-quality food to the exponentially growing world population, assuring sufficient water supply, safeguarding bio-diversity, and finding a solution for the world's rapidly dwindling oil reserves. Prof. Inzé illustrates this with two examples.

Providing the world with enough food is a great challenge. The current world population of 6.3 billion people is growing by 80 million per year. Even today, we are not succeeding in providing sufficient food and a minimum standard of living for 1 billion people - and these problems will become even more critical as the world population grows to 8 to 11 billion by the year 2050. Increasing food production, possibly through molecular research on plants, will greatly contribute to solving this pressing problem. Prof. Inzé's research into cell division and growth in plants comprised the basis for setting up the biotech company, CropDesign, under VIB's impetus. In the last several years, CropDesign has identified a large number of plant genes that, after introduction into transgene rice plants, have greatly increased yield in the field.

According to Prof. Inzé, there is absolutely no doubt that these findings will have a large impact on world food production in the future. Oil is a natural carbonaceous raw material, and it is generally acknowledged that by 2060 the world's petroleum reserves will be just about depleted. Oil is not only used as fuel but is also the basis for a great many derivative products, such as plastics. Today's high oil prices are already evidence of the impact that the shrinking oil reserves have on our largely oil-dependent economy. So, how can plants provide a solution for this? One of the natural carbonaceous raw materials that is rising alarmingly at the moment is carbon dioxide.

The leaves of plants convert carbon dioxide into bio-mass through the process that we call photosynthesis. Through modern techniques, energy captured from this process can be transformed into renewable raw materials and fuels like ethanol and bio-diesel. Combustion of bio-diesel and bio-ethanol sets the stored energy free again, with only carbon dioxide as a residual product - carbon dioxide that then can be fixed again by plants. In this way, plants can be used to actually achieve an ecological, sustainable production of energy. The American Department of Energy is aiming to obtain 50% of all carbonaceous energy from plants by 2050 - energy that is now supplied almost exclusively by oil. Extensive research into the molecular mechanisms with which plants fix carbon dioxide and convert it into bio-mass will undoubtedly enable these processes to be optimized. Prof. Inzé's research group is the international leader in the study of the mechanisms that control bio-mass, and it is his ultimate ambition to make significant contributions to the generation of plants that can be used much more effectively for producing carbonaceous raw materials and fuels.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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