I am a full professor in Computational Developmental Biology.
In my research I focus on unraveling the complex patterning processes occurring during the development of multicellular organisms using sophisticated computer simulation models that integrate biological data from the subcellular to whole organism scale. This type of integrative modeling approach is extremely powerful in deciphering the functioning of complex biological processes. A nice illustration of this is our recent publication featured on the cover of Development where we show that using modeling we could predict how plant roots sense and respond to salt gradients, enabling them to grow away from where salt concentrations are highest.
In addition to unraveling how patterning processes work I particularly like to use simulation models to ask questions that can not be easily adressed experimentally, namely why processes are functioning in a particular manner and how and why they have evolved to obtain their particular properties.
Animal development - patterning and its evolution
In animals we focus on the patterning of the anterior-posterior axis. Specifically, we develop models to investigate what type of regulatory networks organize posterior growth and segmentation of the animal body axis and what type of conditions and evolutionary selection pressures gave rise to these developmental programs. We use in silico evolutionary models to “play the tape” again and again, thereby enabling us to determine whether particular evolutionary outcomes occur more often than others, and what are the relevant parameters determining the bias towards these outcomes. Thus we try to answer why the mode of body axis segmentation, where a temporal oscillation becomes translated into a spatial pattern of segments, is dominant in both vertebrates, arthropods and annelids.
On the more applied side, we focus on the interplay between axial patterning and left-right signalling in vertebrates, investigating how disabling conditions like scoliosis may arise.
Plant development - patterning and adaptation to environmental conditions
In plants we focus on the interplay between development and adaptation to environmental conditions, with an emphasis on the root system. For this we extensively collaborate with experimental plant groups, investigating the impact of salt stress, phosphate starvation and competition for light on root growth patterns. This research has both applied and fundamental branches. On the applied side, answering how plants adapt to adverse stress conditions may identify targets for crop breeders to produce more stress tolerant plants.
On the more fundamental side, we try to answer general questions such as why the plant hormone auxin can fulfill so many different roles both in development and adaptation, how do plant cells know when to do what? Also, we try to answer how plants, which have no central nervous system, are able to integrate information from different sides of the plant and generate a coherent response. As an example, in halotropims a tropic response in which roots are able to grow away from the highest salt concentration differences in salt concentration of as little as 5% are sufficient to elicit a robust directional growth response.
Finally, we study the type of regulatory networks that allow plants to form new lateral organs, which requires them to initiate, grow and control a new meristem from scratch.
My current and past research is funded by the following grants:
NWO Building blocks of life
NWO VIDI and Aspasia
FP7 Evoevo project
UU Focus en Massa