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DAA: Jian-Kang Zhu

Jian-Kang Zhu

Jian-Kang Zhu


Riverside, CA


Growing up in a small village in China and observing plants sprout to maturity on his family’s farm rooted a lifelong interest and career passion for Jian-Kang Zhu. But leaving his homeland, immersing himself in the study of soil sciences, and exploring the intricacies of plant physiology produced a world-class scientist and researcher. “I drove all the way from California to West Lafayette, and the many different landscapes I saw were fascinating,” says Zhu of his 1990 cross-country trek from the University of California to Purdue to study plant physiology. These days, however, airplanes cover international miles. A frequent guest lecturer and conference co-chair, Zhu shares with scientists worldwide his laboratory’s revolutionary findings on plant stress resistance—specifically, identification of key genes that indicate how plants respond to stressors, such as drought, temperature, and poor soil. His discoveries include the DNA demethylating enzyme that is a major component of epigenetic gene regulation in plants, and several new families of plant microRNAs and short interfering RNAs. In layman’s terms, this translates to the identification of particular genes in plants, which make them more resistant to stressors, such as drought and severe temperatures. Experiments and evaluations are ongoing in Zhu’s laboratories, but all point in the same positive direction: Someday, perhaps even in the next decade, improved genes will be incorporated into plants’ genomes, which will enable them to use water more efficiently. Farmers will reap higher yields; their acres will feed more of the world’s hungry; and our environment will preserve a precious asset—water. The recipient of numerous honors and awards, Zhu most recently earned the distinguished Charles Albert Shull Award from the American Society of Plant Biologists. In 2004, he was appointed to a Presidential Chair by the University of California. “Purdue University provided a very stimulating intellectual environment for education through research, and I feel fortunate to have learned from world-class faculty members. I benefited greatly from an opportunity no student should miss.”