Investigating the Metabolic Diversity of Plant Terpenoids Toward Biotechnology Applications

Philipp Zerbe


Dr. Philip Zerbe

March 15 at 12:20pm in the Fralin Auditorium, Fralin Hall room 102

Hosted by Dr. D. Tholl


Philipp Zerbe is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Plant Biology, University of California at Davis since 2014. His research focuses on the discovery and engineering of terpenoid metabolism in medicinal, food and bioenergy plants with the aim of developing sustainable solutions for enhancing crop resilience and the production of terpenoid bioproducts. In recognition of his work, Dr. Zerbe a 2016/17 Hellman Fellowship and a 2018 PSNA/Elsevier Young Invstigator Award. Prior to his position at UC Davis, Dr. Zerbe received his PhD from the Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany (2007) with emphasis on structural-functional studies in jasmonate phytohormone biosynthesis, followed by positions as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Research Associate at the University of British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada) where he focused his research on the investigation of terpenoid metabolic pathways with relevance for bioproducts and stress tolerance in forest trees.

Plants deploy myriad specialized metabolites to mediate interactions with their environment. Of these metabolites, terpenoids encompass the largest class with critical functions in plant development, chemical ecology and adaptation. A detailed knowledge of the biosynthesis, distribution and bioactivity of terpenoids can provide resources for enhancing crop stress resilience and the manufacture of plant-based bioproducts. By integrating a transcriptomics-enabled gene discovery and metabolite profiling with large-scale DNA synthesis and combinatorial enzyme functional studies, we identified novel terpenoid metabolic pathways in a range of food, bioenergy and medicinal plants. For example, we uncovered previously unrecognized terpene synthases and cytochrome P450 monooxygenases, as key enzymes of terpenoid metabolism, in corn (Zea mays) and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) that contribute to the defense against biotic and abiotic stressors. These biosynthetic enzyme families form modular pathway networks, where catalytically distinct enzyme modules may function in different combinations to enhance chemical diversity. Protein structure-function studies provided a deeper insight into the molecular evolution of TPS and P450 functional diversity and offer opportunity for engineering natural and ’new-to-nature terpenoid products. 

Mafu S et al. (2018) Discovery, biosynthesis and stress-related accumulation of dolabradiene-derived defenses in maize. Plant Physiol 176:2677-90.

Zerbe P, Bohlmann J (2015) Plant diterpene synthases: exploring modularity and metabolic diversity for bioengineering. Trends Biotechnol 3:419-28.

Schmelz EA et al. (2014) Biosynthesis, elicitation and roles of monocot terpenoid phytoalexins. Plant J 79:659-78.


This seminar will be recorded on the Fralin YouTube channel.