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Benelux: Fertile Ground

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Benelux: Fertile ground


Quirin Schiermeier is Nature's German correspondent.
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Fields of endeavour: plant science bears fruit in Flanders.
Whenever Marc Van Montagu looks out of his office window, the plant-science pioneer sees a reminder of a field he seeded in Belgium. Twenty years ago, he and the late Josef Schell founded Plant Genetic Systems (PGS), one of the first companies to exploit the potential of gene transfer in plants. The technology went on to revolutionize plant breeding.

Through a series of mergers and acquisitions, PGS became Bayer CropScience — and next month more than 180 scientists and support staff will move into labs in a new building opposite Van Montagu's office in the Ghent Technology Park.

"I am really happy it stayed in Ghent," Van Montagu says of the company he helped found. He is well aware that plant science is itself a delicate flower, threatened by declining funds and lack of public acceptance throughout the European Union (EU), whose citizens are wary of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Public opinion is no warmer towards GMOs in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg — known collectively as 'Benelux' — than anywhere else on the continent. However, these countries have built up unique strengths not only in genetic engineering but also in traditional plant breeding, nutrition, food safety and environmental research.

As a result, this culturally diverse and densely populated region comprises the continent's most fertile grounds for food and plant science. "There is no such concentration of agricultural biotechnology elsewhere in Europe," says Michiel Van Lookeren Campagne, head of research at Bayer CropScience.

The Dutch-speaking Belgian province of Flanders typifies Benelux's fruitful mix of strong academic research, entrepreneurial spin-off and research-intensive industry. Similar academic–industrial clusters exist around Liège and Namur in Wallonia, Belgium's French-speaking province. The 'Food Valley' in the Netherlands, centred around Wageningen, provides plenty of space, support and opportunities for all kinds of activities in agricultural biotechnology. In Luxembourg, the Gabriel Lippmann Research Centre has a department of environmental and biotechnology research that covers a range of activities from forestry to agricultural science.

English Spoken
The Benelux countries don't burden individual researchers with excessive administration. Foreigners find it easy to adapt — not only in the lab, but also in everyday life, as English is widely spoken.

"In my last job, with Bayer in Germany, I had huge language difficulties, not only in public but also with technicians," says Australian postdoc Ryan Whitford, who last year joined the Flanders Interuniversity Institute for Biotechnology (VIB). "Here it is much better — and the beer is fantastic." Whitford, a molecular plant biologist, was attracted to both industry and academia. He opted for the VIB, where he has the best of both worlds. There he works with model organisms, a staple of basic research, but always with an eye on industry applications.

The VIB, a virtual institute founded in 1995, supports 60 independent medical and plant research groups involved in the life sciences in Ghent, Leuven, Brussels and Antwerp. They use a mix of molecular and cell biology, genetics and bioinformatics to speed the translation of basic research into practical applications in medicine, plant breeding and agriculture.

In the Ghent Technology Park, the VIB's plant scientists share a brand-new lab building with the department of molecular biomedical research. Small groups gather around cube-shaped wooden tables in the spacious lobby, to the delight of Jo Bury, the VIB's director general. "Communication is everything," he says, "and you can bet they're talking about science."

The VIB's department of plant genetics was set up in 1996 under Van Montagu's leadership, and renamed the department of plant systems biology after he retired in 1999. Its focus now is on studying and modelling cell division and cell-cycle control in plants.

This redefinition has created the need for people with skills beyond the plant-science community. "You need very diverse disciplines to do this," says Martin Kuiper, head of the institute's computational biology division. "Unfortunately, there are not many biologists around with really good informatics skills."

Bioinformaticians are also in demand at two VIB spin-offs on the same campus. The first, Devgen, was founded in 1997 by Thierry Bogaert, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Ghent, to identify new drug targets in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. The company also develops chemical and genetic solutions for crop protection.

A stone's throw away at CropDesign, researchers are using high-throughput technologies to validate the effect of gene modification on the growth and yield of cereal crops. In the high-security greenhouses, tens of thousands of modified rice plants are automatically handled and digitally photographed at different growth stages. As Wim Van Camp, the company's director of technology management, says, it's "an enormous challenge in terms of data management".

Life scientists in Belgium and the Netherlands find it easy to switch between academic and industrial research. Postdocs in industry, such as Philippe Hervé, a French plant biologist with CropDesign, can become team leaders quite early in their careers. But they then spend less time at the bench, and more in meetings, than colleagues at universities and research institutes.

In the Netherlands, the food industry accounts for 10% of the gross national product, 10% of employment and more than a third of exports. The Wageningen Centre for Food Sciences (WCFS) fosters public–private partnerships in the Food Valley, Europe's largest centre of food-related research. Set up in 1997 with help from the Dutch government, it promotes cooperation in pre-competitive research among seven large food companies, including Dutch–British giant Unilever.

A Taste of Success
The WCFS supports research related to food and health in areas from nutrigenomics — how nutrients interact with the genome — to food structure, safety and microbial functionality. It is linked with graduate schools at the universities of Wageningen and Maastricht, which offer additional courses to 50 or so PhD students at a time. Each year, some 30 postdoctoral positions become available, in areas from pure science to product development.

"One interesting new field is the molecular basis of sensory properties," says Martijn Katan, scientific director of the WCFS nutrition and health programme. "What is it that makes something taste nice or creamy in your mouth?" Each company has only a minor influence on the research programmes, says Katan. Indeed, he adds, the WCFS is involved in evaluating industry claims about the health benefits of research-intensive 'premium products', such as probiotic yoghurts containing allegedly beneficial bacteria and spreads containing plant substances to reduce cholesterol uptake.

Wageningen is an ideal environment for agricultural biotechnology, just as Leiden, 100 kilometres west, is for the medical life sciences. Labs and small enterprises are spread all over these towns, easily reached by bicycle. Students, scientists and employers encounter each other at every corner and in every pub.

Aalt Dijkhuizen, president of the Wageningen University and Research Centre, prides himself on the tightly focused research at the small university, where people from 120 nationalities work in the whole range of plant, nutrition, animal and environmental sciences.

Their skills are in demand locally. Keygene, for example, is a supplier of molecular markers and genetic 'fingerprinting' to aid conventional plant breeding. Perhaps because it offers an alternative to GMOs, the company has grown from four employees in 1989 to more than 100 now, with further plans for expansion.

Van Montagu is optimistic that applying such high-tech approaches to conventional breeding will help to solve GMO problems — and ensure that the plant-science tradition he planted will continue to flourish.

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