Westerdijk Fungal Biodiversity Institute
In 1907 Johanna Westerdijk became director of the CBS. She started with a mere 80 living fungi in the collection. Under her inspiring leadership the collection of CBS-KNAW evolved into the largest and most all-round microbial fungal resource centre in the world, containing over 100.000 different species today.
She was a renowned multi-talented scientist, a believer in equal opportunity and inclusion and a globetrotter; a true ‘homo universalis’. She thought that fungi held a promising potential in contributing to solve the world’s greatest challenges.
One hundred years ago, Johanna Westerdijk became the first female professor in the Netherlands.
In 2017 we honour her work and we celebrate her contribution to science. To reflect the legacy the institute builds on, the name of this institution changes to Westerdijk Fungal Biodiversity Institute. We continue to explore the world, collect new fungi and investigate its characteristics for relevant societal applications.
The Westerdijk Fungal Biodiversity Institute is part of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW).
Celebrating the Westerdijk-year
On the 10th of February it is 100 years ago since Johanna Westerdijk gave her inaugural lecture as the first female professor in the Netherlands. Utrecht University appointed her as professor in the field of phytopathology, a field that is still social relevant. In addition, she was director of CBS-KNAW Fungal Biodiversity Centre (CBS-KNAW). Under her inspiring leadership the collection of CBS-KNAW evolved into the largest and most all-round microbial fungal resource centre in the world.
Westerdijk was a renowned multi-talented scientist with an international and interdisciplinary orientation. She believed strongly in equal opportunities and inclusion. She educated 56 PhD students, of which almost half were female. In 2017, the “Westerdijk”-year, we honour her work and celebrate her contribution to science.
Mycological research is really in its infancy. Although we know a lot, there’s still a lot we don’t know. Researchers at the Westerdijk Fungal Biodiversity Institute unravel the mysteries of fungi.
Up until the 1990s this research mainly amounted to descriptions of fungi. The emergence of new methods, including DNA analysis, however, was the onset of a revolution in mycological research. In addition to describing fungi, researchers could now also understand them. Since specific genes represent specific characteristics, fungal behaviour in certain conditions has become predictable.
This is of major importance: currently more than 100,000 species of fungi have been identified. We assume that there are over one million of unknown species. Some fungi have a similar ‘exterior’ but DNA analysis may reveal widely dissimilar characteristics.
Research into the identification of specific fungi (diagnostics) is constantly developing. The next revolution in mycological research will certainly concern fungal proteins, which resemble fingerprints. In the foreseeable future, fungal proteins will underpin the identification of a species and its characteristics. And it will take just as much time as making a cup of coffee. At present this kind of identification takes several days of research.
Fundamental research into the characteristics of fungi is conducted by the research group Medical Mycology supervised by Sybren de Hoog. Its research concerns, for example, the use of fungi in case of resistance to antifungal agents.
You probably think that most scientist who research fungi wear a lab coat and use the microscope. And while that is absolutely true, another type of scientist has risen: the scientist that uses bioinformatics and data generated by others. They do not wear lab coats, but use powerful computers and software to analyse data.
Bioinformatics is a relatively new field that uses informatics, software and algorithms to discover new species, new functions, understand genomes and the expression of the latter and draw conclusions.
The Westerdijk Institute has a research group dedicated to building a software that is now used worldwide to store, manage, analyze and publish large biological databases.
You might think: ‘What data are they using’? Up until about 10 to 15 years ago it used to be visual data like photos and textual data like describing a fungus. Now the bulk of the data consists of physiological and DNA data.
The beauty of using software to analyse data is that we discover so much more and at a much faster pace. We are now able to compare data that used to take a lifetime. And now it’s available with a click of a mouse.
Take for instance the research that was done on thermoregulation. Thermoregulation is the mechanism that regulates our body temperature around 37°C. When humans are infected by pathogens they usually react by raising their body temperature by 1 to 5°C (fever) to fight microorganisms. We have demonstrated that each increase of 1°C of body temperature above 30°C induces a 6% decrease of the number of fungi able to grow. For a long time this used to be a theory or assumption (or as scientists put it: an hypothesis). With the help of big data it was possible to quantify the relation between the increase of body temperature and the reduction of the number of pathogens able to survive in the human body. Another research was done on bats, who were killed by a fungus during hibernation (when the body temperature of the bats drops). If the bats were forced out of hibernation and then allowed to go back to hibernation, the brief period that the temperature rose was enough to kill the fungus and no more bats where killed by the fungus during hibernation. Lucky for the bats and proving the hypothesis that thermoregulation plays in important role in the fight for pathogens.
The Westerdijk Institute is a front runner in the use of bioinformatics on fungi. We know that this is the future. Gathering and combining data and analysing huge amounts of data will take the research of fungi and the institute itself to the next level.
But do not forget: our biological resource centre of living fungi still is and always will be the jewel of our institute.
The research group Bioinformatics, led by Vincent Robert, is responsible for the data management of the culture collection and many other associated databases. This group focuses on the development of big data management and fast algorithms and software of genome and associated meta data.
Research starts with asking questions. ‘Why does this fungus live on trees, whereas that fungus doesn’t thrive there at all? Up to what temperature does this fungus survive?’ The Westerdijk Institute abounds with curious people who love questions like these.
Sometimes mycological research resembles a bit of sleuthing. Looking for clues and linking up facts. Modern researchers have become gene hunters. You might think of it as a fungal CSI. Finding a lead that will advance their quest. Like detectives they look for a trail that will lead to answers to pressing questions.
Take for instance the outbreak in Canada of a rare yeast species, Cryptococcus gattii (renamed as C. deuterogattii). This suspect is a real baddie. Initially C. gatti often causes pneumonia, but it may invade the bloodstream and end up in the brains where it may launch a fatal meningitis. In Canada this yeast managed to infect people with a healthy immune system. By researching the yeast’s DNA like veritable CSI detectives and comparing it to the DNA of other yeast strains, C. gattii proved to originate from Brazilian tropical forests, from where it spread all over the world years ago. Cryptococcus gatti seems to have a new preference for a Mediterranean climate. It’s remarkable that it thrives in locations that are so different from its natural, warm habitat. Our first-class yeast detectives are currently finding out why this yeast is so common in these environments right now.
Another example is the illness tinea nigra. It’s caused by a fungal infection that causes black spots on the palms of your hands. It starts with a tiny black spot but soon expands to large black patches. In the past, this disease was treated with very potent medication. ‘Detectives’ of the Westerdijk Institute have investigated this infection.
They discovered that the illness only occurs in people who have a tendency to sweat rather quickly and who have been on holiday in the Caribbean.
And guess what: the fungus which was deemed to be so dangerous turned out to be an innocent salt lover! The remedy? Simply wash your hands with Clearasil and the fungus is literally washed from your hands.
Fundamental research into the characteristics of fungi is conducted by, for instance, the research group Medical Mycology supervised by Sybren de Hoog and by the research group Yeast and Basidiomycete Research supervised by Teun Boekhout. Research concerns for example the potential use of fungi in case of resistance to antifungal agents or the mechanisms employed by yeasts to cause diseases.
The CBS-KNAW becomes the Westerdijk Fungal Biodiversity Institute.
To accomodate the growth of existing research groups and to host a new research group on product discovery, a new wing is being adding to the existing building of Uppsalalaan 8 in Utrecht.
In addition to the existing research group of Pedro Crous (Evolutionary Phytopathology), Robert Samson (Applied and Industrial Mycology),
Sybren de Hoog (Origins of Pathogenicity in Clinical Fungi), Teun Boekhout (Yeast and Basidiomycete Research), two new research groups have been created by and for Ronald de Vries (Fungal Physiology) and Vincent Robert (Bioinformatics).
August 2002 dr. Pedro Crous was appointed director to lead the institute in a challenging research future. At the same time, a new research group on Evolutionary Phytopathology is created.
In December 2000 the CBS moved to Utrecht where it is accommodated in the completely renovated building, previously occupied by the Hubrecht Laboratory (NIOB), another institute of the Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences. The complete staff and collection of the yeast department also joined the staff and the collection of Baarn. The facilities in Utrecht allow a firm base for growth and fruitful cooperation between CBS, the Hubrecht laboratory and the University of Utrecht.
The donation in 1934 from mr. O. van Vloten, a tea planter in the Dutch Indies who was keenly interested in fungi, allowed CBS to start building her own laboratory in 1962. This was accomplished at the instigation of ms A.L. van Beverwijk who strove to obtain separate accommodation and become entirely independent from the Phytopathological Laboratory "WCS". CBS moved to the new building in 1964. Van Beverwijk did not live to enjoy the fulfillment of her wish. She was succeeded by J.A. von Arx who directed the institute from 1963 on. The number of staff member could be increased and consequently more time could be devoted to scientific research. Each staff member became responsible for the investigation of one or more, incompletely known or poorly defined groups of fungi.
In 1921 A.J. Kluyver (1888-1956) succeeded M.W. Beijerink as a professor of microbiology at the Technical University of Delft. He was interested in the yeasts that were known to be of importance to technical microbiology and took over the CBS yeast collection in 1922. In return for 60 yeast cultures he offered 2000 culture tubes and 100 Erlenmeyer flasks. The yeast research in Delft has developed quite separately from the classical morphological methods used for filamentous fungi. The yeast taxonomy was based mainly on the fermentation and assimilation of certain carbon compounds. This way of classifying yeasts is now generally known as the "Dutch School". J. Lodder was a member of the yeast division from 1932-1938 and published a revision of the imperfect (non ascosporogenous) yeasts in cooperation with H.A. Diddens. In 1946 N.J.W. Kreger-van Rij who joined the yeast department in 1946, compiled the monograph "The yeasts, a taxonomic study" in cooperation with J. Lodder in 1952. This book, many times reprinted and revised, is still the major text book in yeast taxonomy.
Prof. Went who was responsible for founding the culture collection asked in 1907 prof. Johanna Westerdijk as director of the institute. Miss A.L. van Beverwijk succeeded Johanna Westerdijk as director of CBS in 1959.
CBS was established in 1904 as the foundation of a collection of fungal and algal cultures at the 11th International Botanical Congress at Vienna. For some time between the two world wars CBS was financially supported by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (RNAAS) and received a fixed annual sum of 4000 guilders.
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Researchers & Employees
3584 CT, Utrecht
P.O. Box 85167
3508 AD, Utrecht
Phone: +31 (0)30 21 22 600
Fax: +31 (0)30 21 22 601
Fungal collection curator:
Dr. Gerard Verkleij
Yeast collection curator:
Dr. Marizeth Groenewald
Collection of Bacteria:
Mrs. Marian Figge
Restricted collections (Budapest Treaty & safe deposits):
Mrs. Francis Claus (sales)
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