The research in the Phillips lab focuses on the control of plant metabolism with an emphasis on terpenoid (isoprenoid) biosynthesis. Using biochemical, molecular, and metabolomics approaches, the objective of this research program is to understand the control points which determine how carbon flow into the various biosynthetic pathways of plants is regulated.
Certain groups of natural products such as lipids and terpenoids are energy intensive, high value metabolites whose synthesis is tightly controlled by genetic programming, enzymatic activity, and the availability of substrates. These in turn are influenced by environmental and developmental factors which together restrict the resources channeled into these biotechnologically useful products in favor of the primary metabolic cycles necessary for normal plant growth, development, and reproduction. By identifying new mechanisms of control, this research program aims to redirect the flow of metabolic networks towards custom natural product synthesis. Considerable progress into the basic control mechanisms of plant metabolism is first necessary in order to exploit the full potential of plants as clean and sustainable sources of fuel, medicines, nutrients, and agrochemicals. The research in this lab is oriented towards uncovering these basic control mechanisms.
Here are three lines of research currently under development in my lab:
Integrative metabolic control
Plants fix carbon dioxide through the Calvin-Benson-Bassham cycle and channel this reduced carbon towards the synthesis of carbohydrates, lipids, amino acids, phenylpropanoids, and other metabolites. How this carbon budget is divided among these classes of biomolecules is the result of complex, multi-level control that includes genetic, biochemical, and metabolic components. Using Arabidopsis as a model system, this project aims to identify the factors which determine the distribution of carbon resources via whole plant isotopic labeling experiments.
Control of terpenoid biosynthesis
Most plant terpenoids are derived from the plastid localized methylerythritol phosphate (MEP) pathway, which supplies precursors for the synthesis of carotenoids, chlorophylls, phytohormones, and monoterpenoid volatiles, among others. Many terpenoids are medically and industrially useful specialized metabolites whose synthesis outside the plant would be costly and difficult. Research in this area attempts to improve the flow of carbon towards these specialized compounds by understanding more about the regulation of the precursor pathway driving their synthesis.
Plant volatile biosynthesis
Many plant species produce volatile essential oils with fragrant, pleasing aromas that have made them popular in cooking, floristry, aromatherapy, and gardening. Yet these oils also possess potent biological activities which influence the behavior of herbivore and herbivore-predators or deter the growth of pathogenic microbes, including those which cause food borne illnesses in humans. This research project aims to elucidate the biosynthesis of plant volatiles using non-model aromatic plant species.