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Renowned biologist wins Alexander von Humboldt Professorship 2021 for the University of Cologne

Professor Bart Thomma will come to the UoC’s CEPLAS Cluster of Excellence on Plant Sciences with Germany’s most prestigious research prize.

With Professor Bart Thomma, the University of Cologne has the prospect of recruiting an international top researcher in the field of microbiology. With the Alexander von Humboldt Professorship 2021, the Dutch scientist has been granted Germany’s most highly endowed research award – five million euros will allow Thomma to develop his research in his first five years at the University of Cologne.

A total of five world-leading academics will receive the prestigious 2021 award, and will enter into recruitment negotiations with the German universities that nominated them. After the conclusion of the negotiations, Professor Bart Thomma is expected to begin his research at the Institute of Plant Sciences in September 2020 as part of the CEPLAS Cluster of Excellence for Plant Sciences. His professorship in Evolutionary Microbiology will be key to the Center for Microbial Interactomics planned to be established at CEPLAS. ‘I am honoured and thrilled to be one of the five recipients of an Alexander von Humboldt Professorship and I am looking forward with much excitement to continue my research at the University of Cologne and join the vibrant CEPLAS community,’ Bart Thomma commented.

Thomma’s research focuses on the interaction between soil and fungi. Our soil is more than just dark, crumbly earth. It is home to innumerable microorganisms. How they develop, reproduce and impact on plants is crucial for agriculture. Bart Thomma studies microscopic soil fungi that attack plants and cause disease. But how do these fungi manage to outwit the plants’ defensive mechanisms? In order to answer this question, Thomma examines the fungi’s genes and proteins. His aim is to develop innovative strategies to combat the plant diseases caused by fungi.

The evolution of the ascomycete fungus Verticillium dahliae is one focus of his work. This fungus can attack a particularly large number of crop plants from potatoes, tomatoes and strawberries through to fruit trees and other shrubs. It suppresses their immune system and disrupts the plant’s water supply so that green leaves turn pale and limp. Moreover, the fungus uses a special mechanism to reproduce, constantly combining its genetic material in new ways despite reproducing asexually.

Professor Bart Thomma received his doctorate in biology from the University of Leuven in Belgium in 2000, where he also worked as a postdoc. In 2003 he came to the University of Wageningen, Netherlands. There he achieved outstanding results in research and teaching and became assistant professor in 2006. In 2009 he became a tenured associate professor. After only four more years, he was promoted to a full professorship. Thomma has received high-ranking Dutch grants throughout his career. International recognition is reflected, among other things, in the award of the RKS Wood Prize by the British Society for Plant Pathology in 2018 for outstanding achievements in plant pathology research.
Each Alexander von Humboldt Professorship is endowed with up to five million euros. It is awarded to leading researchers from all disciplines worldwide who previously worked abroad. The aim is to enable them to conduct long-term, future-oriented research at German universities and research institutions. The award is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). Four Humboldt Professors are currently working at the University of Cologne: the philosopher Sven Bernecker came from the University of California, Irvine in 2016, the structural biologist Jijie Chai from Tsinghua University in Beijing in 2017, the cancer researcher Henning Walczak from University College London in 2019, and the physicist Malte Gather from the University of St Andrews, Scotland, in 2019.

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More information:
Bart Thomma at the University of Wageningen:

All Alexander von Humboldt Professorships 2021: