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IBL-research interview: Maurijn van der Zee

Maurijn van der Zee, at the IBL since 2010, investigates how genetic changes in developmental programs lead to new animal forms in evolution, using insects as model system. His field of research is called evolutionary developmental biology. Currently, he is working on the success and diversity of the insects.

Purpose of research

There are a million different species, more than ten times the number of vertebrates and many more than any other group of organisms. At a certain point, the insects evolved from crustacean-like ancestors that lived in the oceans. Insects have been very successful in conquering land. Van der Zee discovered that a novel extra-embryonic membrane in their eggs allowed insects to put their eggs on land. The novel design protects the eggs from drying out. Very similar to the evolution of the amniote egg in vertebrates.  “I do this because I am fascinated by the diversity of insects, but it is crucial to understand how insect eggs are protected in order to control agricultural pests and insect-borne diseases like dengue and malaria. It is very important to understand insects, as they are also the main pollinators in agriculture and they might form an essential food source in future.”-  Says van der Zee.

Maurijn van der Zee

Motivation

Maurijn van der Zee already knew as a child that he wanted to study biology. At high school, he was catching water beetles and going to camps to watch birds. Van der Zee: “As a student, I was president of the Youth for Nature and Environment (JNM). It is fun to see that I now teach students who are in the board of the same organisation” . While studying biology, he discovered that he wanted to understand evolution. That he wanted to understand where all those animal forms come from.

Plans for a bright future

One of the things van der Zee would like to achieve is to obtain a large amount of money to expand and speed up his research: “It is difficult to get funding for fundamental research at the moment. Everything needs to have an application within a few years. However, the greatest discoveries have been done out of simple curiosity.” – van der Zee.