Interview with Dr. Nicolaus von Wirén, member of the jury for the Innovation Awards

We set out to interview 3 members of the jury for the Innovation Awards, in order to learn about them. Let’s meet Nicolaus von Wirén, Head of the Department of Physiology and Cell Biology at the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research, in Germany.


Could you please present yourself and your areas of expertise?

I am Head of the Department of Physiology and Cell Biology at the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK Gatersleben, Germany), and I am heading an own research group focused on nutrient uptake systems, especially for ammonium and iron. In addition, we are very much interested in the interaction between nutrients and root architecture and tackle questions like: How are nutrients in the soil perceived as a signal by the roots in order to change root development? How does the plant nutritional status determine root morphology? Or, how do nutrients change the synthesis of phytohormones? And related signalling pathways to affect nutrient acquisition and other agronomically relevant traits.

IPK  has more than 500 employees with, about 200 researchers structured in 4 departments and 28 research groups. IPK hosts the largest gene bank for crop plants and medicinal plants in the EU. We have more than 150 000 lines with a major focus on barley and wheat. Currently, the IPK has the ambition to transform itself into a digital resource center for public use.

What is the history and the link between your Department and the Groupe Roullier? Do you have any common project?

I met Jean-Claude Yvin, R&D Director Plant Nutrition, Groupe Roullier, during a defense of a PhD thesis at the University of Caen.

I stayed in contact with Jean-Claude Yvin until recently one of my PhD students was employed by the Centre Mondial de l’Innovation (CMI).

We have a common project with the Group on abiotic stress responses. IPK conducts series of experiments, in which we expose plants to nutrient deficiencies and look at the transcriptional responses, physiological responses, and at the morphological responses of the roots.

What do you expect in a partnership with a private company?

We have several partnerships with private companies. But I have to say, definitely, with Timac Agro and the CMI, we made by far the most positive experience.

One major reason is that the liberty that the CMI provides for publishing common results is very high.  I greatly appreciate the research-oriented approach and way of thinking in the CMI. This is quite exceptional.

Moreover, CMI allows some flexibility to change the direction of the research during the project, whenever unforeseeable results or observations have been made. The close and regular contact with the CMI research managers is very beneficial to shape the project continuously.

We have complementary expertises, as the IPK is strong in fundamental research, while the Roullier Groupe has high expertise in applied research.

I greatly appreciate the way of how you link your company with public research. You give a really good example there.

You participate in plenty of evaluation committee, could you please describe your experience in the evaluation of research projects?

Three times I was on the evaluation committee of the INRA Versailles, France. Moreover, I served as a member of the evaluation committee of the Faculty for Plant and Environmental Sciences at the University of Copenhagen, here we were evaluating more than 50 research groups.

For 8 years, I was elected member of the Quality assurance committee of the German Research Foundation (DFG). And finally, I serve frequently as a reviewer for the DFG in Germany, the French ANR, but also for the USDA in the US, or Swiss, Danish, and Dutch funding agencies.

Currently, I am also president of the German Society for Plant Nutrition.

Do you have any advice for our candidates in the Innovation Awards?

I will be interested in seeing innovative ideas about pathways, how soil or foliar applied nutrients enter plant cells and how uptake pathways could be improved, or new concepts about how to improve fertilisation practices or how plants respond to targeted ways of the nutrient application at the morphological and physiological level.

Other attractive concepts may address how to stabilize crop yields despite lower nitrogen input, as currently, all the farmers in EU are under pressure to reduce nitrogen fertilizer application. In general, the interaction between management practices and crop genotypes would also be very interesting,  and I believe there is still a lot of room for research on such topics. However, I am already excited to see incoming project ideas also from any other direction in plant nutrition.


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