Get to know AGENT partner UZH

At UZH, we embrace diversity and foster an inspiring learning, research, and working environment. With more than 30’000 students and staff hailing from over 120 countries, our institution thrives on international collaboration and interdisciplinary excellence. UZH offers the largest and most comprehensive range of Bachelor’s and Master’s degree programs in Switzerland. With over 100 different major subjects and flexible program design, students can tailor their education to their passions and career goals. Our outstanding libraries and study centers provide resources for academic exploration. UZH employs innovative teaching approaches to enhance the learning experience.

Established within the picturesque Botanical Garden of the University of Zurich, the Department of Plant Molecular Biology (IPMB) stands as a hub of scientific excellence. Our mission revolves around unraveling the mysteries of plant and microbial life, contributing to global knowledge and sustainable practices. IPMB contributes to a knowledge-based use of natural resources to address environmental challenges and societal needs. IPMB conducts a remarkable diversity of plant and microbial research focusing on molecular mechanisms, differentiating IPMB from other, more organismic research in this field performed at UZH and other Swiss universities. By working on plant development, physiology, molecular biology, epigenetics, microbiology, plant-microbe interactions, microbiome science, agroecology, evolutionary adaptation, and soil and freshwater microbiology, IPMB combines diverse disciplines to provide fundamental insights that can contribute to sustainable agriculture and safe drinking water use, thereby bringing scientific innovation from the lab to society. Internationally, this is recognized by IPMB’s excellent scientific track record and visibility, national and international collaborations with universities, institutes, and industry and, numerous contributions towards policymaking.

In the Research Group in Plant Molecular Biology and Phytopathology we are interested in the molecular function of disease resistance genes in wheat. In an integrated approach we study both the immune receptors on the plant side as well as the recognized effectors in the pathogen. A focus is on the powdery mildew disease caused by the fungal pathogen Blumeria graminis f.sp. tritici (Bgt). There, we study the Pm3 allelic series encoding NLR immune receptors, the Pm8 and Pm17 orthologs in rye and the mildew effectors recognized by these genes. This work relies on pathogen genomics and in addition to the molecular isolation and functional analysis, we study avirulence effector evolution and diversity. Among others, our projects in evolutionary biology have revealed that mildew adaptation on the novel host crop Triticale is caused by hybridization. Finally, in a translational approach, modified immune receptors have been transformed into wheat and the resulting genotypes are tested in the field (

In addition to effector triggered, NLR-based immunity, we also study quantitative and durable leaf rust resistance in the Swiss winter wheat variety “Forno”, and we have molecularly identified the Lr14a and Lr34 genes as two major QTL controlling resistance. Functional studies of these two genes are ongoing. We have recently identified genes encoding a tandem kinase (WTK4) and a kinase-MCTP (Pm4) as novel, race-specific powdery mildew resistance genes. Several projects in the group aim at the characterization of molecular function of these genes in wheat immunity as well as at the identification of the recognized avirulence factors.

Based on the recent advances in wheat genomics and the availability of reference genome sequences we are aiming at the molecular identification of novel resistance genes in genetic material stored in genebanks or available as breeding lines. Our work is based on the knowledge and genetic characterization of disease resistance in wheat by breeders and geneticists during hundred years of wheat breeding, and we are inspired by the enormous natural genetic diversity in this crop. We want to contribute to the molecular characterization of this diversity, and we also aim at translational work to support wheat breeding for disease resistance.

Main building of the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology located in the Botanical Garden in Zürich.


In the framework of WP3, UZH used a selection from Agroscope GenBank accessions and provided DNA samples for the development of precision collections of wheat. UZH phenotyped the entire Swiss precision collection for powdery mildew resistance using 10 isolates from around the world. In addition to WP3, the group led by Beat Keller is focusing on exploiting the genetic and phenotypic information of the precision collection (WP4). For this, UZH is analyzing the genetic basis of powdery mildew resistance using Kmer-GWAS. Such an approach has proven to be extremely effective in wheat and has allowed the discovery of new candidates that are currently under characterization. As part of WP6 and the FAIR objective of the AGENT project, all raw data have been deposited in the Fairdome database. Alongside Agroscope, UZH is also involved in phenotyping the precision collection in the field.


Genebanks host a very large number of accessions and represent a vast resource of genetic diversity. However, they are largely unexplored because of a lack of characterization at the phenotypic and genotypic level. Thus, genebank accessions are not used in plant breeding programmes, although some of the genotypes might harbor valuable traits. In our group we are particularly interested in the diversity of wheat resistance genes against fungal pathogens, and we want to determine if there are faster and better ways to identify novel genes in genebank accession. AGENT provides a unique opportunity to study diversity in genebank accessions and to develop and test better ways of using genotyping data for prediction of resistance genes.

Field experiment with accessions from the project near Zürich


Beat Keller

Beat Keller is full professor for plant molecular biology at IPMB. He is a trained molecular biologist and geneticist. Beat received his PhD in Microbiology from the University of Basel and was later an EMBO longterm postdoctoral fellow at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego. He then built a research group in wheat biotechnology and molecular breeding at the Swiss Federal Research Station for Agronomy and became full professor for plant molecular biology and molecular phytopathology at the University of Zurich in 1997. The group of Dr. Keller has focused on the molecular understanding of fungal disease resistance in the wheat, maize, and barley crop plants. This has resulted in the molecular identification of several agronomically important resistance genes, revealing a large diversity of resistance mechanisms. Furthermore, the determinants of interactions are also studied in the pathogen. Applications of the results are tested in field research.
Dr. Keller has led several large research consortia in Switzerland and was an ERC Advanced Investigator grant holder. He is a member of the German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina. Beat is the team leader of UZH in AGENT.

Benjamin Jaegle

Benjamin Jaegle is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology at the University of Zurich. He earned his degree in plant biotechnology from the University of Bordeaux before completing his PhD at the University of Cologne, after that he specialized in bioinformatic analysis at the Gregor Mendel Institute. Since September 2022, he has been a member of the AGENT project, leading the bioinformatic analysis aimed at unraveling the genetic basis of Powdery Mildew resistance within a collection of Wheat accessions from Switzerland. He developed a kmer-GWAS pipeline to avoid the biases inherent in reference genome analyses.

Esther Jung

Esther Jung is field technician at the department of Plant Biology. She is a trained laboratory technician in molecular biology as well in performing field experiments. In previous jobs she also worked in the wildflower seed production and as a lab technician in forest pathology. Seven years ago, she started to work is Beat Keller’s group and is planning the field trials and doing the scoring of plant diseases in the field.

Matthias Heuberger

Matthias Heuberger is a researcher at the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology. He completed his master’s degree at ETH in Biology with a specialization in Neuroscience. He then moved to the University of Zurich to pursue a PhD degree in evolutionary biology. Matthias is involved in multiple projects, where he focuses on repetitive DNA and comparative genomics, as well as the development of bioinformatic tools.

Javier Sánchez Martín

Javier Sánchez Martín is a new Ramón y Cajal researcher at the University of Salamanca (USAL) after many years as junior scientist at the University of Zurich. He has a background in identifying and characterizing host and pathogen interacting components governing their reciprocal adaptation, in particular the wheat powdery mildew pathosystem. He has also extensively characterized wheat landraces and wheat relatives in search of sources of resistance against wheat powdery mildew in the frame of EU projects AGENT and WHEALBI. He is also currently the manager of the seedbank of the USAL, which is dedicated to the conservation and management of threatened regional flora species, spores and fungal mycelium of agricultural and cultivated crops.