Plants produce a repository of functionally diverse chemicals as a means to adapt to challenging environments. These so-called specialized metabolites protect plants against various abiotic stresses in terrestrial ecosystems, and mediate an array of interspecies interactions, ranging from seduction of pollinators and seed dispersers to defense against pathogens and herbivores. In addition, several classes of plant specialized metabolites also serve as hormones, perceived by complementary signaling networks in host plants to trigger physiological changes in response to environmental cues. Furthermore, many plant-derived specialized metabolites, e.g. paclitaxel, artemisinin, and resveratrol, also possess unique pharmacological properties that directly impact human health. The remarkable chemodiversity in plants is backdropped by rapidly evolving specialized metabolic systems, offering a fascinating platform to understand how complex traits arose in life.
We are interested in addressing five fundamental questions regarding the origin and evolution of chemodiversity in plants: (I) What are the evolutionary trajectories through which multistep specialized metabolic pathways and specific hormone-receptor pairs were assembled? (II) What is the structural and mechanistic basis for the divergence or convergence of catalytic functions in evolving specialized enzymes? (III) What roles do neutral mutation, catalytic promiscuity, protein dynamics, and stability play in natural evolution of new enzyme functions? (IV) Are there distinct biophysical constraints imposed on the same protein fold shaping the differential evolvability in primary and specialized metabolic enzymes? (V) Can we uncover missing genetic and epigenetic components facilitating the rapid evolution of specialized metabolic systems in plants?
More detailed description on each of the projects in the Weng lab is listed below:
Uncovering Nature’s riches
Weng’s laboratory is combining the ancient wisdom of traditional plant-based global medicine with genomics, analytical chemistry, and synthetic biology in order to advance our understanding of plant metabolic evolution and impact a new era of natural products-based therapeutics. Click here to experience a multimedia story exploring Whitehead Member Jing-Ke Weng’s work.
The firefly genome project
Fireflies! These silent fireworks on warm summer nights fill us with wonder. But so much about these fascinating critters remains shrouded in mystery. Our team of biologists has joined forces to sequence the genome of the Big Dipper Firefly, Photinus pyralis. This project is successfully funded through crowdfunding. Please find more information about the project here.
A TED talk by Jing-Ke Weng on “Decoding the Chemical Language of Nature”
Here is a short video highlighting our research on exploring plant metabolism by genetics and metabolomics approaches.