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How do we know we are in love with someone?

It’s when that person catches your interest and you can’t stop thinking about that person. It’s the same with research, says Professor Jijie Chai. Chai is an expert in the structure of proteins. His love is to investigate proteins and their receptors to have a better immune system and thus to protect life against external threats like diseases to humans, animals or plants. In 2017, the leading researcher from China was invited to the University of Cologne and the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Plant Breeding Research to cooperate with leading researchers in Cologne with the support of an Alexander von Humboldt Professorship. 

The interview was conducted by Svenja Rausch.

Professor Chai, it has been almost one year since you arrived in Cologne. Have you been able to settle in in your new research environment at the MPI and the University of Cologne? Is the infrastructure you find here satisfactory to carry out the research?

I came to Cologne in late March of last year. In the beginning, I had an empty laboratory with only two people including myself. So we had to start from scratch, purchasing equipment and recruiting people. Because of the full support from administration departments of the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research and the University of Cologne, the lab is fully functional now, with three graduate students and two postdocs. By early April of this year, two more postdocs and one more graduate student will be joining the lab. I must mention that the setup of my laboratory in Cologne wouldn´t have gone so smoothly without the fantastic work done by the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research and the University of Cologne. So I would like to express my gratitude to all of the faculty and staff from both of the institutions for their help.

Professor Jijie Chai im Interview an der Universität zu Köln. Foto: AvH-Stiftung
Professor Chai im Gewächshaus an der Universität zu Köln. Foto: AvH-Stiftung

In what way does your research help avert threats like diseases in plant breeding? Will your findings help tackle the immanent problem of food security?

Our research is mainly about basic science, aiming to understand how disease resistance proteins (R proteins) in plants recognize their cognate ligands and consequently become activated. Many individual R proteins have been demonstrated to mediate resistance to various pathogens and have a critical role in controlling a wide spectrum of disease responses in plants. Knowledge of ligand recognition and activation of R proteins would offer new opportunities for the development of disease-resistance plants with durable effectiveness.

 How come you decided to cooperate with research institutions in Cologne?

 This was mainly due to scientific reasons. One focus of our research is on plant disease resistance proteins and we have collaborations with many European laboratories in this aspect – for example Professor Paul Schulze-Lefert from the Max Planck Institute for Breeding research with whom I have been collaborating for many years on the structural study of a disease resistance protein from barley. I believe that moving my laboratory from China to Germany will greatly facilitate our collaborations with scientists from Germany and other European countries. 


Many thanks for your time, Professor Chai, and all the best for your research here in Cologne!