Plants are masters at generating chemical diversity. Secondary metabolites, which are now commonly referred to as specialized metabolites, together with phytohormones, constitute the bulk of this diversity. In the Department of Cell and Metabolic Biology, we aim not only at elucidating the biosynthesis of these plant metabolites, but also at understanding the role they play in the life of plants. This can be in the defense against aggressors, but also in attracting beneficial partners or during development.
The research group Glandular Trichomes and Isoprenoid Biosynthesis focuses on terpenoids that are produced in specialized secretory structures, such as glandular trichomes, oil glands or laticifers. These are dedicated to the biosynthesis and storage of massive quantities of metabolites. Terpenoids constitute the most diverse class of plant specialized metabolites and include compounds that are used as flavors, fragrances or medicinal drugs. Uncovering the biosynthesis steps as well as the global metabolic network underlying the high productivity in these dedicated structures constitutes one major objective of our research. We then exploit the knowledge generated for metabolic engineering applications in various hosts, including plants and microorganisms. This is also supported by developing synthetic regulatory circuits to fine-tune the expression of metabolic pathways in target hosts.
Jasmonates are phytohormones that are typically described as involved in defense, particularly against insects or necrotrophic pathogens. But they play also important roles in development, particularly of reproductive organs. A major aim of the research group Jasmonate Function and Mycorrhiza is to dissect the role of jasmonates in flower development, using tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) as a model species. Another area of interest of this research group is the identification of metabolites that play a role in the early stages of the interaction between roots and symbiotic or pathogenic microorganisms.
The research group Phenylpropanoid Metabolism investigates the biosynthesis and function of two groups of metabolites specific β-1,2 glycosylated flavonoids and phenolamides - that are deposited on the surface of pollen grains. Using the model species Arabidopsis thaliana, major steps in the biosynthesis of these compounds were identified. Current projects address the transport of these metabolites from the tapetum, where they are synthesized, to the pollen surface. The biosynthesis of piperamides, which include piperine, the pungent principle of black pepper (Piper nigrum) fruits, constitutes the other major are of interest of this research group. Surprisingly little was known on the production of these compounds in vivo, and first significant advances could already be achieved.
Modern biology requires molecular cloning tools that allow rapid and efficient assembly of parts to generate increasingly complex constructs. The research group Synthetic Biology develops novel vectors and standard parts based on the Golden Gate cloning technology. The modular cloning toolkit based on this technology (MoClo) has now been adopted as a standard in synthetic biology in labs around the world. This research group is using these tools to reconstitute the biosynthesis of colourful plant metabolites, such as carotenoids, anthocyanins or betalains, in various hosts including plants and yeasts.