Toby Kiers, a Professor of Evolutionary Biology, has earned the esteemed NWO Spinoza prize, making her the youngest scientist ever to claim this honor. Professor Kiers’ groundbreaking work investigating the symbiotic relationship between fungi and plants has captivated the scientific community and contributed greatly to nature conservation and the promotion of regenerative agriculture.
Toby Kiers is an evolutionary biologist and professor at VU University Amsterdam. Renowned for her multidisciplinary research approach, Kiers’ work integrates knowledge and theories from separate fields, including economics and physics, into the realm of evolutionary biology. With this approach, Kiers has discovered unique insights into the interconnectedness of life through various biological occurrences.
Kiers is well-regarded for her research on mycorrhizal networks and their exchange of nutrients. Otherwise known as the “Wood Wide Web,” this intricate underground network allows trees and plants to communicate and share resources through a symbiotic relationship. The mycelium of fungi stretches into the soil in tiny branching filaments called hyphae connecting different plants and fungal species together in a system that allows them to share and receive resources. These fungi play a significant role in nutrient exchange, gaining sugar and carbon from plants while providing nutrients and water to their host.
Kier’s research has greatly advanced our knowledge of these networks and their ecological significance concerning their complex connections and impact on carbon regulation. She discovered the role these symbiotic relationships have in a forest ecosystem, as fungi play a critical role in nutrient cycling by helping plants absorb more nutrients from the soil, reducing the need for fertilizers. Prior to Kier’s work, scientists believed that soil interactions were mainly about cooperation and balance; however, Kiers found that there’s a significant amount of competition also happening. By looking at these interactions through this lens, she utilized economic math models to further understand nutrient exchange in the soil.
In 2019, Kiers delivered a TED talk titled “Lessons from Fungi on Markets and Economics.” She drew parallels between the opportunistic underground fungal networks and human economic systems. She highlighted how, like humans, plants and tree roots also engage in strategic trade strategies and even steal or withhold resources, illustrating the prevalence of resource inequality in both nature and human societies.
Then, in 2021, Kiers co-founded the Society for the Protection of Underground Networks (SPUN), an organization committed to safeguarding global fungal networks by conserving the ecosystems found beneath the earth’s surface. They focus on mapping mycorrhizal fungi communities across the world to advocate for their protection. Later that year, Kiers also received the NWO Stairway to Impact Award for taking “effective steps to achieve social impact with their scientific results.” She received 50,000 euros to take further action toward her impact and research.
TIME has recognized Kiers as one of the top 100 emerging leaders shaping the future in fields like science and activism. Her continued recognition indicates that the public is beginning to appreciate and recognize the value of her research. It also suggests a growing openness to understanding the role of mycology in protecting delicate ecosystems and mitigating climate change.
Professor Kiers has recently added another notable accomplishment to her repertoire by receiving the prestigious NWO Spinoza Prize, which is the highest award in Dutch science. The award is reserved for some of the very best scientists around the world, according to international standards. The Spinoza Commission has commended Kiers for her pioneering research and expressed their admiration, “Her groundbreaking contribution to the field has cast a global spotlight on this research area. The societal impact of her work is, therefore, tremendous.”
Upon receiving the award, Kiers shared her excitement, “This is phenomenal news. Fungi have been rightfully highlighted. It’s a brave endorsement of the amazing collaboration I have cultivated with my colleagues at VU and AMOLF. This award will allow us to push the frontiers of imaging within fungal networks.” In conjunction with biophysicists at the AMOLF research institute, Kiers will lead the development of a robot capable of creating detailed images of fungal networks. This technological advance will help follow and trace the nutrient flows within mycorrhizal networks, leading to a better understanding of fungi’s vital role in soil carbon regulation. The Spinoza Prize will be formally presented to Kiers and one other scientist on Wednesday, October 4, 2023.