Personal profile

Research Interests

Research Topics

Archaea, Bioenergetics and Photosynthesis, Drug Discovery, Genetics, Genomics, Regulation of Gene Expression


B.S. (Anthropology), University of Illinois, 1981
B.S. (Microbiology), University of Illinois, 1984
Ph.D. (Microbiology), Purdue University, 1991
Postdoctoral (Microbiology), Purdue University, 1991-1993
Postdoctoral (Microbiology), University of Illinois, 1993-1997

Professional Information

Molecular genetics and biochemistry of methanogenic Archaea; biosynthesis of phosphonate antibiotics; redox cycling of phosphorus by microorganisms

My research program centers on  the investigation of two unusual microbial metabolic processes with important biomedical, biotechnological and environmental ramifications. The first project examines  the metabolism of reduced phosphorus compounds, with particular emphasis on  phosphonic acid antibiotics. The  long-term goal of this research is to elucidate the genes and metabolic  pathways involved in the biosynthesis of phosphonic acid antibiotics and to  explore the molecular diversity of natural products comprising this unusual class of bioactive compounds. We are also interested in the metabolic pathways  involved in the catabolism of reduced phosphorus compounds. These studies are  also expected to enhance our understanding of phosphorus metabolism, which is  central to all living organisms. The second project involves the  development and application of genetic techniques for analysis of the  methane-producing Archaea. These studies impact a number of critically  important to human problems including the production of alternative fuels from  biological materials, waste treatment, and global warming.

Microbial metabolism of reduced phosphorus compounds

Unlike the other elements that  comprise living matter, it was long believed that phosphorus (P) was redox  conservative, existing in the natural world solely in its most oxidized state.  Research in my laboratory clearly establishes the capacity of microorganisms to both produce and consume reduced P compounds. Our studies have led to the  identification of numerous genes and enzymes required for oxidation of  phosphite, hypophosphite and phosphonic acids. Many of these enzymes catalyze  unprecedented biochemical reactions. Some have highly useful biotechnological  applications, such as the enzyme phosphite dehydrogenase, now being used commercially as a cofactor-regenerating enzyme. Interestingly, many reduced P compounds have potent bioactivities. Investigation of these bioactive compounds  is a major area of interest in our group.

We have focused our research  efforts on two particularly promising classes of P compounds, the phosphonic  and phosphinic acids. These molecules  represent a potent, yet underexploited, group of compounds with great promise  in the treatment of human disease. Numerous, structurally distinct,  phosphonates are produced in nature and many have useful bioactive properties, Figure  1. Among these are the bioactive compounds phosphinothricin tripeptide (PTT), phosphonothrixin,  fosfomycin, plumbemycin, A53868, FR-900098 and fosmidomycin. The latter two are  remarkable in that they are highly effective in the treatment of malaria (including multi-drug resistant strains) and various bacterial infections. Fosfomycin, clinically used under the name Monurol®, is effective against a variety of infections and is the only FDA approved drug for  treatment of acute cystitis during pregnancy. Phosphinothricin-tripeptide and  phosphonothrixin, are excellent herbicides and various formulations of the  former are widely used in agriculture, with annual sales in excess of $200  million. Additional medical applications can be found in other naturally  produced phosphonates. For example, the phosphonate compound designated K-26 is  a potent angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitor and shows promise in the  treatment of high blood pressure. Importantly,  the targets of phosphonate antibiotics vary substantially, allowing their use  in the treatment of a wide variety of health conditions. Further, the potent  bioactivity of some phosphonates allows their use as fungicides, herbicides and  pesticides in agriculture.

In ongoing studies conducted at  the Institute for Genomic Biology our group has cloned, sequenced and  characterized the gene needed for synthesis of many of the phosphonate  compounds shown in Figure 1. These studies have led to the development of engineered strains that overproduce the antibiotics in question, thus lowering  the costs associated with their production. Moreover, we have uncovered a  wealth of interesting and unprecedented metabolism and biochemistry during our  characterization of the antibiotic biosynthetic pathways. Perhaps most  importantly, we have shown that genes for phosphonate biosynthesis are quite common in antibiotic-producing microorganisms. Current research is aimed at  characterizing previously known and, as yet uncharacterized, phosphonate  compounds with the goal of discovering and developing novel therapeutic agents.

Genetic analysis of methanogenic Archaea

Methanogenesis plays an essential  role in the biosphere. Each year an estimated 5 x 1014 g of  biologically produced methane is released into the atmosphere. Depending on  your viewpoint, this represents a staggering untapped renewable energy source and/or a frightening contribution to global warming. Significantly, this value  grossly underestimates the flux of carbon via the process because  microorganisms consume the majority (50-75%) of methane produced before it can  escape into the atmosphere. Therefore, the actual rate of methanogenesis is 2-4 fold higher than the typically  quoted value. Moreover, vast amounts of biologically produced methane  remain trapped at the sea floor in the form of methane-hydrate: by some  estimates a quantity twice that of all other known fossil fuel reserves  combined. While these huge numbers clearly establish the essential role of methanogenesis in the global carbon cycle, they fail to capture the full impact  of methanogens on biological nutrient cycles and global climate.

Methanogenic  microorganisms play a keystone role in anaerobic environments whenever more  favorable electron acceptors such as Fe(III) or sulfate are absent. In such  environments, a complex microbial community ferments biomass to a mixture of  acetate, formate, hydrogen and CO2. These compounds, in turn, serve  as growth substrates for methanogens. Interestingly, the two processes are  inextricably linked. By consuming the fermentation products as rapidly as they  are produced (keeping the concentration of these compounds very low), the  methanogens render an otherwise endergonic process thermodynamically favorable.  Thus, the fermenting microbes are incapable of consuming their growth  substrates in the absence of methanogens, whereas the methanogens are  completely dependent on the fermenting microbes to produce the substrates they  require for growth. This process, known as “syntrophy” (literally translated as  “eating together”), is the basis of the anaerobic food chain in most freshwater  ecosystems. As a result, anaerobic decomposition of typical biomass produces methane  and carbon dioxide in a one to one ratio. Thus, the fraction of the global  carbon cycle that is dependent on methanogenesis is actually twice the amount  of methane produced. Accordingly, the total amount of carbon turnover that is  dependent on methanogens could be as high as 5 x 1015 g per year:  roughly 4% of annual primary productivity of the biosphere!

The potential  impact of methanogens on a number of human issues cannot be ignored. The vast  amounts of methane produced in the biosphere have been touted as a renewable,  carbon neutral energy source. Methanogenesis is also critically important in agriculture due to the role of methanogenic organisms in ruminant nutrition and  waterlogged fields (e.g. rice paddies)  and it is a required step in the processing of waste in sewage treatment  facilities and landfills. It is estimated that roughly half of biological methane production can be directly attributable to these human activities. As a  result, the level of methane in the atmosphere has increased dramatically since  the industrial revolution, doubling in the last 1-200 years. This increase  carries particular significance to the global climate because methane is a  highly potent greenhouse gas, ca. 25-fold more effective than CO2.  Although present at much lower concentrations in the atmosphere than CO2,  methane currently accounts for ca. 20% of the radiative forcing of all greenhouse gasses. Taken together, these issues provide a compelling rationale  for further study of methanogenic microorganisms.

My laboratory uses a combination  of genetic, biochemical and molecular methods to study the methanogenic  archaeon Methanosarcina. Over the  past decade we have developed a powerful suite of genetic methods that can be  used in many Methanosarcina species.  These include: plasmid shuttle vectors, high efficiency transformation,  directed gene replacement, in vivo transposon mutagenesis, multiple selectable markers, reporter gene technologies,  and an anaerobic incubator for large-scale growth of methanoarchaea on solid  media. Genetic manipulation of Methanosarcina species is simple and reliable and these methods have proven invaluable for  studying the metabolism and physiology of multiple Methanosarcina species.

Importantly, genetic manipulation  of Methanosarcina species can readily  be used to study methanogenesis itself. Methanosarcina species are the most metabolically diverse of the methanoarchaea, and can use H2/CO2,  methanol, methylamines, methylsulfides, pyruvate, and acetate as substrates for  methanogenesis via the four substantially different methanogenic pathways. In contrast, most other methanoarchaeal species can utilize only one  of the four pathways. Because these organisms must produce methane to grow, it is impossible to create mutants that block methanogenesis  in these organisms. Thus, mutants blocked in one pathway retain the ability to  grow via the others. Importantly, Methanosarcina species are the only methanogenic organisms for which the dual requirements of metabolic diversity  and proven techniques for genetic analysis are satisfied. As such, they are the only known organisms in which genetic analysis of methanogenesis itself is readily possible.

Over the past ten years we have constructed mutant strains with lesions in dozens of different genes, including ones in each of known the methanogenic pathways. These studies have confirmed the hypothesis that Methanosarcina mutants blocked in methane production via one pathway retain the ability to grow via the remaining  pathways. Interestingly, these mutants often demonstrate unexpected phenotypes  that have dramatically changed our understanding of the methanogenic process.  For example, mutants of the C-1 oxidation/reduction pathway are unable to  utilize either H2/CO2 or methanol for growth (as expected),  but are also unable to grow on acetate. This observation demonstrates a role  for the C-1 pathway in carbon fixation during growth on acetate. Other mutants  blocked in the utilization of hydrogen fail to utilize methylotrophic  substrates, showing that molecular hydrogen is a preferred electron carrier  during growth on soluble substrates like methanol. These findings highlight the  value of the genetic approach to the study of Methanosarcina. Clearly, further genetic analysis of the  methanogenic process is warranted. Current work in the lab is aimed at elucidating the mechanisms on energy conservation during methanogenesis and the  means by which Methanosarcina regulates its genes in response to changing environmental conditions.

Honors & Awards

Fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), 2016
Fellow in the American Academy of Microbiology, 2010

Office Address

601 S Goodwin Ave.
Urbana, IL 61801

Office Phone

(217) 244-1943

Collaborations and top research areas from the last five years

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