Dr. John D'Auria
Title: Assistant Professor
Education: Ph.D. University of Michigan, 2002
Alexander von Humboldt Postdoctoral Fellow 2003-2005, Project Leader
Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, 2005-2013
Research Area: Biochemistry
Office: Chemistry 413-D
Principal Research Interests
- Chemical Biology
- Metabolic Engineering
- Biochemistry and Evolution of Plant Specialized Metabolism
Plant Metabolic Engineering: From Cars to Mars
A green solution to the production of valuable organic compounds would be a boon to the environment, the economy, and to the advancement of our knowledge of metabolic pathways. Plants can be a tremendous and valuable resource for the production of complex compounds that would normally require vast resources and involve environmentally damaging chemicals when produced by traditional methods. The D'Auria lab at Texas Tech University is focused on engineering value added traits into plants and micro-organisms to be solutions for problems ranging from biofuels to space exploration. Currently, the research team led by Dr. D'Auria is focused on the engineering of the tropane alkaloid biosynthetic pathway for use as pharmaceutical compound production. Several tropane alkaloids are listed by the World Health Organization as the most essential medicines needed for basic health care.
Jirschitzka J, Mattern D, Gershenzon J, D’Auria JC, Learning from nature: New approaches to the metabolite engineering of plant defense pathways. Current Opinion in Biotechnology 24(2): 320-328 (2013)
D’Auria JC, Reichelt M, Luck K, Svatos A, Gershenzon J, Identification and characterization of the BAHD acyltransferase malonyl CoA: Anthocyanidin 5-O-glucoside-6''-O-malonyltransferase (At5MAT) in Arabidopsis thaliana. FEBS Letters 581 (5): 872-878 (2007)
There are no petrochemicals in space. This one simple fact precludes making pharmaceuticals and other complex organic molecules on a manned mission to Mars or to the moon. Bringing up a pharmacopeia of relevant compounds would be weight prohibitive when there are better solutions. The D’Auria lab is interested in modifying the plants that would be grown in space for food and oxygen so that they would also produce the astronaut’s medicines. The first steps are fully understanding the pathways involved in the process of biosynthesizing these essential medicinal compounds. The next steps will include re-engineering these pathways in plants and micro-organisms and optimizing their production. In the figure below, you can see the D’Auria labs efforts in the first stages of understanding tropane alkaloid production via multiple methods. These include MALDI imagining of where pharmaceuticals accumulate, protein crystallography and modeling of key biosynthetic enzymes as well as their localization via immunohistochemistry. Mixing and matching enzymes from different plant families wield broaden the possibilities for metabolic engineering of novel medicinal compounds.
1. Schmidt G, Jirschitzka J, Porta T, Reichelt M, Luck K, Pardo-Torre J, Dolke F, Varesio E, Hopfgartner G, Gershenzon J, D’Auria JC. The last step in cocaine biosynthesis is catalyzed by a BAHD acyltransferase. Plant Physiology 16(1), 89-101 (2015)
2. Jirschitzka J, Schmidt GW, Reichelt M, Schneider B, Gershenzon J, D’Auria JC, Plant tropane alkaloid biosynthesis evolved independently in the Solanaceae and Erythroxylaceae. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109 (26): 10304-10309 (2012)
Tropane alkaloids represent a major class of plant-derived secondary metabolites known to occur in the Solanaceae family but are also present in the families Convolvulaceae, Proteaceae, Rhizophoraceae and Erythroxylaceae. The core defining structure of tropane alkaloids is an 8-azabicyclo[3.2.1] octane nucleus. The diversity of tropane alkaloids is achieved by elaboration of this core through different types of modifications. The genus Erythroxylum (family Erythroxylaceae) contains approximately 230 species with ranges spread throughout the tropics including South America and Madagascar.
Erythroxylum coca and Erythroxylum novogranatense are the most widely used species for the production of cocaine. Very little is known as to the biological and ecological roles that cocaine and other tropane alkaloids play in plants. Their anti-cholinergic properties argue strongly in favour of deterrent activity against herbivores. We have begun molecular and biochemical studies in order to elucidate the biochemical steps which lead to the production of tropane alkaloids in E. coca plants.
Biochemistry and Evolution of Tropane Alkaloid Biosynthesis