Dirk Inzé Lab

Research focus

The growth of plants and plant organs is highly controlled by both intrinsic development programs and environmental cues. The long-term goal of my research is to obtain a holistic understanding of plant growth.  To this end, a systems biology approach has been used in which many tools ranging from quantitative image analysis towards mathematical modeling have been integrated.  Most of our research has been focusing on leaf growth and the understanding of the signaling networks that determine final leaf size. Interestingly, molecular mechanisms that regulated leaf size in Arabidopsis are to some extent conserved in maize.  By using the experimental advantages of both model systems tremendous progress has been made in understanding plant growth. We anticipated that this knowledge will have a significant impact on our ability to select novel high yielding and climate adapted crops.

Molecular mechanisms regulating leaf size in Arabidopsis
Understanding the mechanisms that control tissue, organ and organism size are amongst the most fascinating open questions in biology.  A key concept in "size biology" is that both in animals and plants size itself is regulated. Our long-term goal is to unravel the molecular pathways that govern leaf size in Arabidopsis. One of our approaches is based on studying the action mechanisms of growth enhancing genes which, when mutated or overexpressed, enlarge leaf size. In most cases examined so far, enlarged leaf size results from an increased cell number without significantly affecting cell size, pinpointing to a central role of cell proliferation in size control. A detailed kinematic analysis as well as transcript and metabolome profiling was undertaken on various lines with enlarged leaves. Crosses between lines with enlarged leaves revealed unexpected additive and synergistic phenotypes. Detailed computational, as well as functional analysis, has shed new light on how organ size is governed in plants. As cell proliferation plays an important role in the control of final size, genome-wide transcript profiling has been performed on leaves primordia throughout the transition from proliferation to expansion, in order to identify temporally and spatially regulated genes involved in the control of these processes. In addition, novel image analysis algorithms were developed to visualize and quantify the size and shape of the cells along the proximal-distal axis of these leaves primordia.

Systems biology of tolerance to mild drought in Arabidopsis
Despite the recognized importance of drought in limiting plant growth and biomass production, little is known about the underlying molecular mechanisms. However, it is now clear that plants reduce their growth as a primary adaptation response to stress, rather than as a secondary consequence of resource limitation. In unpredictable environments, growth reduction enables plants to redistribute and save resources, ensuring reproduction even when the stress becomes extreme. However, when the episode of stress does not threaten plant survival and from the agricultural point of view, growth reduction can be seen as counter-productive, leading to unnecessary yield loss. Limiting growth reduction may thus provide a strategy to boost plant productivity under stress. Whilst stress responses of mature organs are relatively well characterized, what happens in the growing zones is much less understood. To address this gap in knowledge, physiological (growth analysis) and molecular (e.g. transcript, metabolite, and protein profiling) analyses have been undertaken to understand how growing (fully proliferating and fully expanding) Arabidopsis and maize leaves regulate their growth in response to water deficit. Genes are further investigated using automated phenotyping platforms and targeted molecular approaches.

Translational research: maize leaf development
Maize is one of world’s most important crops for food and feed. The major of objective of our research is to use the profound understanding of growth regulatory processes to improve crop yield. More specifically, our research goal is to unravel how growth of maize leaves is controlled under standard, as well as mild drought stress conditions. Maize leaf development offers great opportunities to study the dynamics of growth regulatory networks, essentially because leaf development is a linear system with cell division at the leaf basis, followed by cell expansion and maturation. Furthermore, the growth zone is relatively large, allowing easy access of tissues at different positions. We are in the process of constructing a 3D cellular map and a molecular network analysis of the growth zone of maize leaves. Selected regulatory nodes of the growth regulatory networks are further functionally analyzed in transgenic maize. To the end, a large-scale phenotyping robot, PHENOVISION, was constructed, allowing for the daily RGB-, infrared-, and hyperspectral imaging of maize plants. Our results opens up new perspectives for the identification of optimal growth regulatory networks that can be selected for advanced breeding or for which more robust variants (e.g. reduced susceptibility to drought) can be obtained through genetic engineering. We very successfully showed that maize plants with higher expression of PLASTOCHRON1 have > 10% yield gains. The ability to improve the growth of maize and, in analogy other cereals, could have a high impact in providing food security.

Dirk Inze is the Science Director of the VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology



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Dirk Inzé named as one of the most influential people in the European Seed sector

23/04/2019 - Each year, European Seed, Europe’s most important publication that offers specialized content to the seed industry, selects twenty people who have proven to be very relevant to the seed sector.

Permit for CRISPR maize field trial that aims to measure climate stress

15/04/2019 - On April 12, 2019 VIB has been granted a permit for its field trial with maize plants that contain small surgical CRISPR-induced heritable changes. Obtaining this permit allows VIB to continue the field work that was already initiated in 2017.

5 VIB researchers receive an exceptional ERC Advanced grant

27/03/2019 - The European Research Council is unique in its kind in Europe supporting individual top researchers from anywhere in the world for 5 years. Five VIB researchers have been awarded this competitive & widely acknowledged benchmarks of scientific excellence

A new strategy for drought tolerant crops shutting down the plant’s growth inhibition in case of mild water shortage

11/05/2011 - VIB/UGent researchers have unveiled a mechanism that can be used to develop crop varieties resistant to mild droughts.

BASF Plant Science and VIB boost cooperation

02/09/2008 - BASF Plant Science and VIB collaborate on plant genetic mechanisms that increase yield and improve tolerance to environmental stress such as drought and cold.

European Commission earmarks €12 million for plant growth research

21/06/2006 - The European Commission is devoting €12 million to AGRON-OMICS, a plant research consortium spearheaded by Pierre Hilson and Dirk Inzé of the Flanders Interuniversity Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) and Ghent University.

Innovative technology for the production of new pharmaceuticals forms the basis of a new company SoluCel

20/03/2006 - Scientists developed a technology to increase the production of pharmaceuticals in plant cells. The technology forms the foundation for the new company SoluCel

Dirk Inzé

Dirk Inzé

Research area(s)

Model organism(s)


​PhD: Ghent University, Belgium, 1984
Principal Investigator VIB since 1998
VIB Science Director since 2002
EMBO Member
Laureat of the Körber Stiftung Prize
ISC highly-cited researcher in the field of plant and animal sciences
Laureate of the Francqui Prize
Five-yearly FWO-Excellence Prize: Prize Dr A. De Leeuw-Damry-Bourlart in Exact Sciences
Advanced ERC

Contact Info

VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems BiologyUGent-VIB Research Building FSVMTechnologiepark 71 9052 GENTRoute description