Major recognition for pioneer in microbial ecology

KWR Honorary Fellow Willy Verstraete receives honorary doctorate from Wageningen University & Research

At the age of 76, Willy Verstraete – emeritus professor of Ghent University since 2011 – is still active in microbial ecology, a field he himself helped to shape from the 1970s onward. On 9 March, he received an honorary doctorate from Wageningen University & Research. “An award that fits in with the idea of the greater Low Countries,” the scientist believes. “Namely that Flanders should work very closely with its Dutch colleagues. Doing so makes us both stronger.”

Verstraete’s honorary doctorate adds a special lustre to his collaboration with KWR, where he was appointed Honorary Fellow in 2018. Among other things, Verstraete was one of the founding fathers of KWR’s Resource Recovery research line. And he is one of the driving forces behind the theme of ‘Resource Efficiency’ in KWR’s BTO-WiCE-programme.

Honorary doctorate to Willy Vertraete (center) (Photo by: Guy Ackermans)

Indispensable microbiomes

Verstraete thinks the award of the honorary doctorate by WUR is a major honour. “Wageningen is the global leader in the field of Life Sciences. During my time at Ghent, I have been involved with numerous doctorates there. In recent decades, a great deal of pioneering work has been done to discover the value of microbial communities. These microbiomes provide healthy air, water and soil. Large-scale technological facilities have been built, such as activated sludge systems and anaerobic digesters. In natural and man-made systems, microbiomes provide enormously important services. They are all around us, and also on and in our bodies. The gut microbiome has proven to have a significant impact on our mental mood. We have a kind of Avatar connection with our microbes.”

End of activated sludge

One of the milestones in his career of which Verstraete is proud was during the 2014 International Water Association (IWA) congress. He was invited as the keynote speaker that year and he seized the opportunity to shake up the water world. Verstraete: “Activated sludge technology in wastewater treatment had been in existence for a century in 2014. It was there that I said that one hundred years was more than enough. The method was no longer sustainable and it needed a drastic rethink. That had a major impact, as though I had pulled out the rug from under everybody’s feet.” Obviously, the professor didn’t make a statement like this lightly. He had a possible alternative to propose. “Re-use. We must face up to the fact that the world is cyclical. Instead of using resources once and then throwing them away, we have to maximise recycling. Resource recovery has become the major theme with which I have become associated. And I worked on it in close collaboration with KWR.”

Pushing at the scientific boundaries

Verstraete is complimentary about KWR as a knowledge institute for the water sector. “KWR’s strength is that the researchers who work there are given the time and space to push at the scientific boundaries,” he explains. “It is a joy to work with people who are so forward-looking. Future generations must also be able to live in a healthy water world.”

Major challenge

Verstraete describes improving the interaction between humans and micro-life as a major challenge for microbial ecology. “While we use microbial biotech to achieve the SDGs, we must also be aware that microorganisms can derail, with potentially harmful results. We must be alert to the possibility of unbalanced systems, as in outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease. Pandemics have taught us that, instead of bullying microorganisms with antibiotics and a range of chemicals, we should try to be smarter and more respectful in our approach to them. And we shouldn’t spread molecules into the environment, like PFAS, that microorganisms can’t break down. In short, we need to establish a dialogue with them and their world.”

Go for it!

Verstraete’s energy is admirable. And he has another valuable piece of advice for students and young professionals. “I like to pass on to them the wise words spoken by Beijerinck –  the Dutch microbiologist and co-author of the theory ‘everything is everywhere, but the environment selects’ – about a century ago: ‘Happy are those who are starting out now.’ And I like to add: go for it! The ‘new worlds’ that can, and should, be discovered and developed are waiting for you.”