Plant researchers celebrate anniversary
Scientists at the Leibniz Institute of Plant Biochemistry (IPB) in Halle are currently making the national headlines. Together with colleagues at Martin-Luther-Universität [university] in Halle, they have made a scientific discovery so ground-breaking that it has been published in the renowned professional journal "Nature". This is not the first time that researchers at the institute, part of the German-wide Leibniz Association, have drawn international attention. The IPB, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this month, has long been one of the leading institutions in global plant research. Report INVEST spoke to the institute's managing director, Professor Ludger Wessjohann.
The IPB has been in operation for 20 years. Do you see that as grounds for celebration?
Wessjohann: Absolutely. This month will see a great celebratory event with a number of important guests. Our traditional staff party will also be on a rather grander scale this year. There are certainly more than enough grounds for celebration. One is the 20th anniversary of our institute. The IPB was launched in 1992 as part of the Leibniz Association – back then still the "Blaue Liste". However, the new institute drew on a great tradition in the field of plant research here which goes back much further. The Germany Academy of Sciences set up an earlier institute of plant biochemistry, the "Institut für Biochemie der Pflanzen", back in 1958, which was also internationally renowned.
The IPB has grown steadily since its foundation. What have been the milestones in its development?
Wessjohann: I came to the institute from Amsterdam ten years ago, so I have been involved in half of its history. I have never regretted the move, for not only have I put down roots in Halle, but also and most encouragingly, the institute has gone from strength to strength in terms both of the infrastructure, and of scientific achievements and partnership with business. We are now at the leading edge of international plant research. We do have a staff of over 180, of whom around 90 are scientists. A number of renowned research projects have been conducted here over recent years. Our specialist areas include the extraction of natural materials from plants and their use in drugs; we also investigate environmental factors affecting plants, in other words how they respond to infections and other forms of stress.
Plants can suffer from stress?
Wessjohann: They can indeed, albeit in a rather different form than we do as humans. For a plant, stress can mean attack by pests, for example, or increasingly dry springs. We are interested in what effect these factors have on plants, and how high yield can still be achieved, for farmers will increasingly be faced with such phenomena as a result of climate change.
All eyes are on researchers from the IPB after their recent publication in the journal "Nature". Can you explain the details?
Wessjohann: Together with Professor Ivo Große from Halle university, our colleague Dr Marcel Quint has demonstrated that the so-called "hourglass model" of embryogenesis can also be applied to plants. Using arabidopsis thaliana, they proved that the development of a fertilised egg to a mature embryo undergoes a phase of strict genetic control. New, highly changeable genes are temporarily disabled, while more ancient, less changeable genes remain active in bacteria and algae. This discovery is a milestone as it shows that evolution in independent systems such as the animal and plant kingdoms follow similar principles of development.
This is not the first time that IPB researchers have hit the national headlines. What do you believe drives this excellence?
Wessjohann: There are a number of factors. Firstly, the institute is extremely well-equipped. To give you just one example, we have state-of-the-art phytochambers for experiments with plants. Phytochambers are, if you like, high-tech greenhouses which can simulate a whole range of climate scenarios. There are few institutes in the world which have such advanced chambers. Secondly, we do, of course, bring the most talented in the field to Halle. The competition for highly skilled researchers is immense - all the more reason to be pleased that 20 percent of our scientists are now from abroad. The research environment at our site is also excellent. The institute is right at the centre of the Weinberg Campus Technology Park, which offers a wide range of opportunities for scientific collaboration, for example in the Science Campus Plant-based Bioeconomy, and now has a strong reputation across Germany and indeed Europe as a plant research centre.
What would you like to see for the further development of IPB and the location?
Wessjohann: It is great that there have been so many new developments here. But it also surprises me that, even today, people are still prejudiced about Halle. This is something we notice when trying to recruit German students - from both the west and the east. I wish that there would be a change of mindset. Candidates from abroad are far ahead of us on this point; they have long ceased to differentiate. Ultimately, those who join us in Halle are, as a rule, extremely happy here. I can say from experience that the scientific working environment, the location and the history of the IPB create a unique atmosphere, which in turn makes it extremely easy to identify with the institute.
Author/photo: Ines Godazgar
Leibniz Institute of Plant Biochemistry
06120 Halle (Saale)
Prof. Ludger Wessjohann