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NL: Plant researcher René Geurts elected EMBO member

Molecular biologist René Geurts from Wageningen University & Research has been elected a member of the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO). This leading scientific organization focuses on promoting research in molecular biology. Geurts' election as an EMBO member recognizes his research on the symbiosis between bacteria and plants, in which bacteria extract nitrogen from the air and deliver it to plants.

"I regard the election as an honor and appreciation for the research that my team at Wageningen has done," says Geurts. "EMBO is a fantastic organization committed to top-notch molecular biology research, which it promotes through meetings, training, and courses. It is also a community of academics with overlapping interests, however diverse the research topics may be. So this network is definitely a positive boost for my own research and new collaborations."

Geurts has been working in Wageningen for his entire scientific career, since 1992. Nitrogen-fixing rhizobium symbiosis has always been central to his research. "Since its discovery in the late 19th century, the interaction between rhizobium bacteria and, in particular, leguminous plants has continued to interest scientists.

Growing without fertilizer
This interaction between plant and bacteria leads to the formation of a unique organ on the root of the plant, the root nodule, which houses rhizobium. "It is relevant to understand why rhizobium does not trigger immune responses in the plant when it invades," says Geurts. "But the most relevant is the nitrogen-fixing capacity of the bacteria, and how leguminous plants benefit from it. This characteristic allows leguminous plants to grow independently of external nitrogen sources (fertilizer)."

There has long been a dream of transferring this trait to other plants. But despite intensive research into the molecular mechanisms and genetics underlying nitrogen-binding rhizobium symbiosis, they have so far failed to achieve this objective. This led Geurts to take a different approach to this research.

"My team's research has provided unique insights into the evolution of nitrogen-fixing root nodule symbiosis," he explains. "Using non-leguminous plants, we found two genes that may hold the key to the origin of this interaction. These genes are now the starting point for a new strategy to enable nitrogen fixation by rhizobium bacteria in other plants as well."

Other academics also elected
Besides the Wageningen academic, 119 other academics have been elected EMBO members. They deal with issues including how infectious diseases spread, the intricacies of nutrient cycles in the ocean, and the links between the biology of our brains and our emotions.

Along with the other new members, Geurts will be officially welcomed in late October at a special meeting in Heidelberg, Germany, where the organization's headquarters are located.


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