LSI Seminar Series: Björn Hamberger, Ph.D., Michigan State University
Building nature-inspired chemical spaces through plant synthetic biology
Plant specialized products have co-evolved over 450 million years with their enemies: pests, pathogens and feeding animals. Terpenes specifically are a hallmark of effective plant defense, yet humans have also discovered their value as flavors, fragrances, cosmetics and therapeutics since the dawn of civilization. In modern times, natural products represent for the industry the entire spectrum of compounds from green solvents to agrichemicals and high-value antibiotics and pharmaceuticals. Instead of using inherently petrol-based, formal chemical synthesis for their access, our team is interested in learning from plants how these compounds are made and in exploring the plant routes for biotechnological applications. The knowledge is already empowering new approaches to explore the uncharted territory of their chemistries for biosustainable production.
This talk will highlight highly diverse endeavors and the challenges tackled by the students on our team. Specifically, we were hunting pathways to the plant-based drugs ingenol (anti-cancer), triptolide (immunomodulatory, anti-viral) and forskolin (silver-bullet drug). This research has revealed non-canonical enzymatic steps, unusual substrates and unexpected promiscuity. Plant species we are excited about are increasing on a nearly weekly basis, but we are currently focusing on members of the coffee (Rubiaceae) and mint (Lamiaceae) families. New technical advances (sequencing, analytics) have already changed the traditional ways we approach these plants. A few key features make the work particularly exciting for of our team: diverse collaborations bridging phytochemistry, biochemistry, molecular biology, bioinformatics and engineering of biotech host species. Collectively, this represents one of the many facets of synthetic biology.
With a background in chemistry, the training of Björn Hamberger expands from biochemistry and molecular biology to plant synthetic biology. The research of his team, established in 2016 at Michigan State University, approaches the discovery of plant pathways in non-model medicinal plants accumulating bioactive specialized metabolites with pharmacological activities and their biotechnological production. The publication record of Hamberger’s team highlights an interdisciplinary and highly cooperative research, with top-tier international journals, including contributions since 2016 to Science, PNAS, Angewandte Chemie, International Edition, eLife, Nature Communications, New Phytologist, the Journal of Biochemistry and the Plant Journal. His work, supported by two distinct MSU Strategic Partnership Programs has also yielded three Patent Applications. Hamberger's applied and technologically broad research approach also has been integrated in his teaching and mentoring efforts for undergraduate students, graduates and postdoctoral members of the team.