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Rob Schuurink has been appointed professor of Plant specialized metabolism and defence within the research area of Plant Physiology at the University of Amsterdam's (UvA) Faculty of Science with effect from 1 November 2021.

Rob Schuurink next to his gas chromatograph – mass spectrometer. Photo: UvA / Raimond Snellings

Schuurink is an expert in the field of secondary plant metabolism and interactions between plants and pests. Plants excel as chemists: they are able to produce very complex molecules (metabolites) that are not involved in the primary growth process, but usually serve as defences against herbivores. Many of these special metabolites have been shown to be useful for humans, for example taxol and artemisinin. The latter substance is made in the glandular hairs of the plant, just like, among many other substances, the fragrances of peppermint and thyme and the cannabinoids in cannabis plants.

An important overarching goal of Schuurink’s research is to identify the molecules, proteins and genes that contribute to the defence of plants against pests and how the production of these molecules is regulated. His research also focuses on insects, by studying how they modulate plant defences. One of his lines of research, for example, revolves around plant defences against thrips and whiteflies. Within this line, Schuurink, together with Plant Physiology and Molecular Phytopathology colleagues, recently received a new grant from the Dutch Top Consortia (TKI) program to study the interactions between plants, thrips and a virus that is vectored by thrips. This notorious virus can cause great damage to, for example, tomato plants. An overview of such biotic interactions can be found in a special issue of Current Opinion in Biotechnology (2021) of which Schuurink was co-editor.

Glandular hairs

Another important line that Schuurink is working on revolves around the glandular hairs on the stems and leaves of tomato plants - so-called trichomes - which form an important defence mechanism. Trichomes don't just physically protect against pests; they also secrete pest repellent or toxic substances. In 2018, Schuurink led a team which showed that a protein called MYC1 is essential for the formation of some of these glandular hairs. Schuurink is working on this together with colleagues from the Plant Physiology group.

Not all his work revolves around pests: in another line of research, Schuurink showed that the flowers of petunias do not passively but actively release volatile substances into the air to attract pollinators such as moths. This resulted in a publication in Science in 2017.

Minor Molecular Life Sciences

Schuurink teaches several courses within the Bachelor's program in Biology and coordinates the Biotic Interactions course in the Master's track Green Life Sciences. He has recently become coordinator of the Tesla minor and is working on establishing the BSc major Molecular Life Sciences. The associated minor will start next year, and it is intended that this will become a major the year after.

In addition to teaching students, he also likes to provide the general public with more knowledge about plant physiology. He does this, for example, through press releases, lectures in the Hortus Amsterdam and in the past by raising enthusiasm for molecular biology amongst secondary school students through the ITS Academy.

Career

Schuurink obtained his doctorate from Leiden University in 1993. He then worked successively at UC Berkeley in California, the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding in Cologne and the Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. In 2001 he was appointed Assistant Professor at the Swammerdam Institute for Life Sciences of the University of Amsterdam, from where he rose to Associate Professor and now Full Professor.

Schuurink regularly receives important grants to fund his research projects. In addition to the already mentioned TKI-U grant for plant-thrips-virus interactions, in recent years he received a TKI-U grant for research into the production of volatile substances by trichomes and a TTW-NWO grant for research into defence mechanisms of plants against whiteflies. In addition, Schuurink is currently involved in two major EU Horizon 2020 projects.