Background and activities

 

The year 2020 was the International Year of Plant Health. Although it was overshadowed by another health crisis plant health is an important issue that merits our attention, also beyond 2020. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that “up to 40% of food crops are lost due to plant pests and diseases annually”. This causes severe economic losses in the agricultural sector and poses a serious threat to food security. Pathogens and pests do not only damage crop plants but also threaten wild plant species. In addition to these biotic factors plant health can be severely affected by abiotic stresses such as heat, drought, flooding, pollution, etc.

My research interests are directly related to plant health as I study mechanisms that are involved in plant resilience against biotic and abiotic stresses. I work mostly on the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana and focus on two aspects:

 

1. The glucosinolate-myrosinase system, a plant defence mechanism

Glucosinolates are a group of more than 150 plant specialized metabolites characteristic of Brassicaceae, which include Arabidopsis thaliana and crops such as oilseed rape, mustard, broccoli and cabbage. Myrosinases are enzymes that convert glucosinolates into biologically active compounds when plants are attacked by pathogens or wounded by pests. These compounds can be toxic to microbial pathogens and insect pests, or attract parasitoids of these pests (tritrophic interactions). In addition they give the characteristic flavour to these plants, and are beneficial for human health.

I have identified and characterized enzymes that are involved in the biosynthesis and conversion of glucosinolates, and studied for example how a change in glucosinolate-derived compounds affects the interaction between the plant, insect pests and parasitoids.

Lately, I have also been investigating if these glucosinolate-derived compounds can act as so-called damage-associated molecular patterns (DAMPs). DAMPs are molecules that are generated when a plant is damaged, trigger the plant innate immune system and thereby act as danger signals to the damaged plant (and potentially its yet undamaged neighbours). I am interested in finding out if glucosinolate-derived products can be perceived (directly or indirectly) by the plant, what the plant innate immune response that is then triggered looks like, and how this protects the plant against pathogens and insects.

 

2. Plants and trace metals

Trace metals can be toxic for both plants and humans (e.g. Cd, Hg), and heavy metal pollution is a big problem for water supplies and agriculture soils. But trace metals can also be essential for plants as enzyme cofactors (e.g. Fe, Zn, Mn) and when they are deficient in crops this can cause human malnutrition. In addition, it has been hypothesized that plants can use trace metals as a defence mechanism (the so-called “elemental defence hypothesis”) and some plant species, called heavy metal hyperaccumulators, possess the natural capacity to tolerate and accumulate very high concentrations of metals.

I am on one hand investigating in how far metals in plants can complement or interfere with the glucosinolate defence mechanism described above. On the other hand I am looking at biotechnological approaches to increase the capacity of yeast, diatoms and plants to accumulate and tolerate heavy metals. These improved hyperaccumulators could then be used to remove heavy metals from contaminated waters or soils, an approach known as bioremediation.

 

Scientific, academic and artistic work

Displaying a selection of activities. See all publications in the database

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