Frederic Lens

Frederic Lens

“I am fascinated by the endless variation of growth forms in flowering plants and its evolutionary adaptive significance”. Starting with a plant anatomical background, I later learned how to functionally interpret anatomical observations with respect to drought stress tolerance. As an evolutionary biologist, I am eager to better understand why plants became woody during evolutionary history and why these woodiness transitions evolved hundreds of times. By combining models of evolution and ecology with experimental work, I am developing a new, multidisciplinary line of research on the topic of wood evolution that will yield unprecedented insights to better understand how wild plants and crops react to drought stress in a world facing global change.


Derived woodiness, drought stress tolerance, evolution of woodiness, hydraulic failure, insular woodiness, molecular wood pathway, wood anatomy

Dr. Frederic Lens

Group Leader
Functional Traits
+31 (0)71 7519320
Google Scholar

Evolution towards Woodiness
Finding the drivers

Why have so many herbaceous lineages returned to a woody life form?

I discovered that transitions from herbaceousness towards derived woodiness have happened at least 700 times independently during evolutionary history of flowering plants. This raises the intriguing question what are the environmental and genetic drivers of wood formation across all these transitions. 

Wood anatomical cross sections
This is Frederic Lens holding a giant woody cabbage


A selection of the topics I am working on currently.

QTL experiment in Brassica oleracea

QTL experiment with giant woody cabbage

What are the key regulatory genes involved in wood formation? And are these regulatory genes the same in all independent woodiness transitions? And how much overlap is there between the regulatory pathways leading to woodiness and drought? To this day…
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Identification of traded wood samples

Identification of traded timbers

Can we help safeguarding our forests by providing customs officers and other stakeholders with a timber tracking tool allowing them to identify illegally logged wood samples? A case study in ebony woods.
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  • Dória L.C., Podadera D.S., del Arco M., Chauvin T., Smets E., Delzon S., Lens F. 2018. Insular woody daisies (Argyranthemum, Asteraceae) are more resistant to drought-induced hydraulic failure than their herbaceous relatives. Functional Ecology 32: 1467-1478.
  • Lens F., Picon-Cochard C., Delmas C., Signarbieux C., Buttler A., Jansen S., Chauvin T., Chacon Dória L., del Arco M., Cochard H., Delzon S. 2016. Herbaceous angiosperms are not more vulnerable to drought-induced embolism than angiosperm trees. Plant Physiology 172: 661-667.
  • Choat B., Jansen S., Brodribb T.J., Cochard H., Delzon S., Bhaskar R., Bucci S., Feild T.S., Gleason S.M., Hacke U.G., Jacobsen A.L., Lens F., Maherali H., Martinez-Vilalta J., Mayr S., Mencuccini M., Mitchell P.J., Nardini A., Pittermann J., Pratt R.B., Sperry J.S., Westoby M., Wright I.J., Zanne A. 2012. Global convergence in the vulnerability of forests to drought. Nature 491: 752-756.
  • Lens F., Sperry J.S., Christman M.A., Choat B., Rabaey D., Jansen S. 2011. Testing hypotheses that link wood anatomy to cavitation resistance and hydraulic conductivity in the genus Acer. New Phytologist 190: 709-723.
  • Melzer S., Lens F., Gennen J., Vanneste S., Rhode A., Beeckman T. 2008. Flowering-time genes modulate meristem determinacy and growth form in Arabidopsis. Nature Genetics 40: 1489-1492.

PhD and postdoc

My team currently includes two postdocs and four PhD students, and a number of BSc and MSc students.

  • Kasper Hendriks - postdoc - Building Tree of Life of Brassicaceae and exploring convergent evolution towards woodiness in this family
  • Giovanni Bortolami - postdoc - Herb hydraulics: testing the role of root pressure to unravel the dynamics of drought-induced vascular dysfunction in stems
  • Mehrdad Jahanbanifard - PhD - Identification of ebony woods using AI algorithms from anatomy and chemical profiling
  • Ajaree Thonglim - PhD - Assessing structure-function relationships in stems and leaves of Brassicaceae
  • Vicky Beckers - PhD - Comparative wood anatomy of the tropical families Apocynaceae and Sapotaceae
view Teide Echium wildprettii


  • BSc: Biodiversity of Plants - Tree of Life (plant anatomy), Leiden Univ.
  • BSc: MINOR Scales in Biodiversity (integrated wood anatomy), Leiden Univ.
  • MSc: Development and Evolution (derived woodiness), Leiden Univ.


The following projects are available to BSc and MSc students

tomaat fruit

Positive root pressure and xylem repair

The main aim of this project is to further our understanding of the conditions under which positive root pressures develop in the tomato plant, and to test the hypothesis that the ability to generate positive root pressure enhances drought-resistance.
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Response to drought of a giant woody cabbage cross

This project will aim to determine the differences in water-use behavior and hydraulic traits related to drought-resistance, and various molecular responses to drought stress between the two parents and a number of offspring genotypes selected to represent…
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wood collection Ebenaceae

The power of comparative wood anatomy

Naturalis has a long-standing history in wood anatomical research and houses one the largest scientific wood collections in the world (ca. 125.000 samples). Using light and electron microscopy, wood anatomists describe the extraordinary variation in cell…
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In the

  • The potential implication of making crops more woody (in Dutch)
  • Forests suffer from drought stress (in English)
  • Compilation of global functional trait TRY database (in English)
  • Woody Arabidopsis mutant (in English)
Frederic lens presentatie