Prof. Dr. Ulla Bonas

Germany

Biologist, geneticist

DAAD Postdoctoral Scholarship 1985–1986

Prof. Dr. Ulla Bonas DAAD


At the age of 14 she already knew she wanted to become a researcher one day. So Ulla Bonas began to buy books about biochemistry during her school days and finally became enthralled with the life sciences. It was genetics, in particular, that fascinated her. Born in Cologne in 1955, she set out to study biology and botany in her home town and quickly specialised in her field.

Mobility is very important in science, a stay abroad is worth its weight in gold.
Ulla Bonas

After university, she went to the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research in Cologne and from there took a DAAD Postdoctoral Grant to the University of California in Berkeley in 1985–1986. This was also where she began to conduct the research that would eventually lead to her winning the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize in 2011 awarded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). The prize is worth 2.5 million euros, making it the highest valued German funding prize in basic research.

The geneticist and professor at the Institute for Biology of the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg received the prize as the world's leading researcher on the interaction between pathogenic bacteria and their host plants. Her work focuses on the pathogen Xanthomonas campestris pv. Vesicatoria (Xcv). It causes bacterial spot disease on peppers and tomatoes by manipulating the genes and so results in high crop yield losses. In a series of sensational papers, Ulla Bonas initially succeeded in cloning and characterising the avirulence gene of Xcv – the AvrBs3-gene – and subsequently explaining its functionalities.

After completing her habilitation (venia legendi) in Berlin, Bonas, in her capacity as a DFG Heisenberg Fellowship Holder became head of an independent research group and later, as a research director, went to the CNRS Institut des Sciences Végétales in Gif-sur-Yvette, in France. When she received the offer of a professorship at Halle an der Saale, she hesitated at first. Actually, as Bonas said, "I didn't want to return to Germany, since I had been disappointed by the German research landscape." However, after lengthy and protracted negotiations with the university in Halle and the promise that a new building would be provided for her department, she accepted the offer and moved to the Martin Luther University in 1998. In Halle she also actively shaped research policy, and in 2015 the plant geneticist was elected vice rector of the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina. Nevertheless, she says: "My stays abroad in the United States and France were absolutely essential for my research." The advice she gives her young scientists and her students is: "Mobility is very important in science, a stay abroad is worth its weight in gold."