Plants produce a panoply of structurally and functionally diverse natural chemicals known as specialized metabolites. Evolutionary assembly of a multistep specialized metabolic pathway using descendants from enzyme folds rooted in primary metabolism. The Weng lab uses X-ray crystallography to understand biological processes at atomic resolution. By combining bioinformatics and biochemistry, we seek to understand the biophysical determinants shaping enzyme evolvability in divergent protein lineages. Chemical communication between plants and root microbiota. Image credit: Matthew Crook/Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 3.0. The tough outer wall (exine) of pollen grains is made up of sporopollenin, an ancient biopolymer that contributed to the emergence of land plants 450 MYA. Selaginella, a genus representing the oldest lineage of vascular plants, offers an ideal system for studying parallel and convergent metabolic evolution in terrestrial plants.


Early plants began colonizing the terrestrial earth approximately 450 million years ago. Their success on land has been attributed to the evolution of elaborate specialized metabolic systems from core metabolic pathways, the former yielding a panoply of functionally diverse chemicals to cope with a myriad of biotic and abiotic ecological pressures.

Our lab has broad interests in understanding the origin and evolution of plant specialized metabolism at enzyme, pathway, and systems levels, as well as how plants exploit discrete small molecules to interact with their surrounding biotic and abiotic environments. Our work in plant metabolic evolution impacts a fundamental question in biology – how do complex traits evolve in a Darwinian fashion? In addition, we actively seek opportunities to utilize plant natural products as unique chemical probes to query human physiology and disease biology. In the long run, we also aim at elucidating the molecular mechanisms underlying the “matrix effect” known from many traditional herbal remedies used for thousands of years. We believe that basic scientific research motivated by curiosity will be key to address the societal challenges of tomorrow.