“I always wanted to be a chemistry professor”

Hajo Kries appointed to W3 professorship for Technical Biochemistry in Stuttgart.

| Charlotte Fuchs

The photo shows Hajo Kries, who has been Professor of Technical Biochemistry at the University of Stuttgart since July 1, 2024, where he succeeded Bernhard Hauer. Photo: Anna Schroll/Leibniz-HKI
Hajo Kries has been Professor of Technical Biochemistry at the University of Stuttgart since July 1, 2024, where he succeeds Bernhard Hauer. Photo: Anna Schroll/Leibniz-HKI

Since July 1 of this year, Hajo Kries has become Professor of Technical Biochemistry at the University of Stuttgart. There, the former junior group leader of the Leibniz-HKI succeeds Bernhard Hauer.

When his primary school teacher asked Hajo Kries in fourth grade what he wanted to do for a living, he declared: “I want to be a chemistry professor!” To blame was his chemistry set, which he had always enjoyed playing with. “It wasn't a permanent career aspiration, but I had somehow always imagined working at university and that a life as a researcher would be a great thing.” So Kries began his biochemistry studies in Jena and, after a year abroad in Geneva and his Bachelor's degree, moved to the ETH Zurich. There he made a rather unusual switch to pure chemistry in his master’s program: “I simply realized that things weren't explained to me enough in biochemistry. But I always wanted to understand the mechanisms.” However, he only took this approach in order to move back towards biology in his doctoral thesis. As a research assistant at the Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology – Hans Knöll Institute (Leibniz-HKI) in Jena, he already had contact with the biosynthesis of natural products. He was fascinated by the field and so he studied the enzymes involved in it in more detail.

Jena, Geneva, Zurich, Norwich and Jena again

“In your career, of course, you have to gain experience, especially in the early days,” says Kries about his relocations. After Zurich, he moved to Norwich in England, where he spent two years as a postdoc with Sarah O’Connor, funded by a grant from the EU’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie program. In 2016, he then returned to Jena as a junior research group leader for Biosynthetic Design of Natural Products at the Leibniz-HKI. The group investigates the modular biosynthetic pathways of non-ribosomally synthesized peptides, such as the antibiotics gramicidin S and polymyxin. They want to develop more reliable methods for the conversion of non-ribosomal peptide synthetases. A nonribosomal peptide is not synthesized on the basis of a DNA sequence on ribosomes, as is usual in “classical” protein biosynthesis. Instead, special enzymes, the nonribosomal peptide synthetases (NRPS), synthesize these so-called secondary metabolites step by step. Hajo Kries’ group uses this modular design to produce completely new active substances enzymatically, the purely chemical synthesis of which is only possible with low yields or not at all.

Hajo Kries in a white lab coat, with orange protective goggles and blue gloves, at work in the lab, here still as a junior group leader of the junior research group Biosynthetic Design of Natural Products at the Leibniz-HKI. Photo: Anna Schroll/Leibniz-HK
Hajo Kries at work in the laboratory, here still as a junior group leader of the junior research group Biosynthetic Design of Natural Products at the Leibniz-HKI. Photo: Anna Schroll/Leibniz-HKI

And now Stuttgart

“It was a great environment here at Leibniz-HKI. We have made good progress with NRPS engineering. And now the research group is going to Stuttgart.”

In addition to his research work, Kries now also has a much larger share of university teaching to do, but that suits him just fine: “The teaching is one reason why I’m so enthusiastic about this position. Because I have a lot of freedom here to teach exactly the topics that interest me and that I want to bring closer to others,” explains Kries.

Kries has some plans for the future of his research group: “We will of course continue with NRPS engineering, but we also want to exploit the potential that the University of Stuttgart offers us. I could imagine doing something in the direction of producing green hydrogen. How can biocatalysis be used to help with energy transformation?” Opening up new research topics would be an exciting thing for Kries. “I think sustainable synthesis and production is a big topic. I would like to go a bit more in the direction of biotechnology. And I would also like to build on the work of my predecessor and continue working with terpenes.”

The colleagues at the Leibniz-HKI are looking forward to continuing their work with the newly appointed Professor Hajo Kries. His example shows how successful the institute’s young talent program is. The Leibniz-HKI’s goal is to bring fresh ideas into the institute through young scientists and at the same time to contribute to advancing their careers, whether in responsible positions in industry or as professors in academia. The Leibniz-HKI will benefit in the long term from the international network that is developing. After all, no one forgets the good times in Jena that quickly.


Hajo Kries