Texas Tech University

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
Phone: 806-834-7348
Email: john.c.dauria@ttu.edu


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. 

Other ongoing studies are focused on identification of gene controlling elements (promotors) involved in tissue specific expression. As an example, the figure on the right shows a plant construct where a seed specific promotor was identified. These control elements will be essential for targeted metabolic gene expression. In this case, genes encoding enzymes to modify seed oils for biofuels are targeted to the highly enriched oil producing seeds.
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)

In another study, the D’Auria group identified key enzymes for modifying anthocyanins, the compounds responsible for the red to purple shades of colors in leaves and flowers. Anthocyanins are ingredients in ‘super foods’ because of their anti-oxidant and cancer fighting qualities. The figure to the left depicts normal Arabidopsis plants while the plant to the right was engineered to not only over-produce anthocyanins, but to modify the actual normal profile to a more valuable compound.
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

The terminal step in the production of cocaine or other tropane related esters is thought to be the formation of the acyl ester via the action of an acyltransferase enzyme. In the case of cocaine, this acyltransferase utilizes the substrates methylecgonine and benzoyl CoenzymeA to produce cocaine and free CoA. I have been working for several years on a plant specific family of acyltransferases commonly referred to as the BAHD acyltransferases. Thus far, more than 8 BAHD acyltransferases have been isolated from Erythroxylum coca (E. coca). Recent results show one of these BAHD members exhibits cocaine synthase activity. Members of my group have successfully developed an LC-MS based ‘realtime’ enzyme assay for cocaine synthase in order to obtain very accurate kinetic data for characterization studies. We are also using antibodies made against the whole purified protein in order to perform immunoprecipitation and immunohistochemical studies.

In addition to the study of the role of acyltransferases in E. coca, I am also actively pursuing what enzymes are involved in forming the first and second rings of the tropane core. Most theories to date suggest that the precursor compound is most likely the mono-methylated polyamine putrescine. With the aid of Dr. Christin Fellenberg, a postdoctoral fellow in my lab we are characterizing the properties of several polyamine synthases that are similar to putrescine methyltransferase and spermine/spermidine synthases. We are also interested in the origins of the benzoic acid portion of cocaine and are combining all of our tools that we have thus far developed for E. coca to develop this system as a model for benzoic acid biosynthesis.

Representative Publications

"Tropane and granatane alkaloid biosynthesis: A Systematic analysis." Kim, N, Estrada, O, Chavez B, Stewart C, D'Auria JC (2016). Molecules 21(11), 1510-1535. doi:10.3390/molecules 21111510 
"The last step in cocaine biosynthesis is catalyzed by a BAHD acyltransferase."Schmidt, G., Jirschitzka, J., Porta, T., Reichelt, M., Luck, K., Pardo-Torre, J., Dolke, F., Varesio, E., Hopfgartner, G., Gershenzon, J., D'Auria, J. (2015).Plant Physiology, 16(1), 89-101. doi:10.1104/pp.114.248187
"Influence of medium and elicitors on the production of cocaine, amino acids and phytohormones by Erythroxylum coca calli.",Docimo T, Davis AJ, Luck K, Fellenberg C, Reichelt M, Phillips M, Gershenzon J, D'Auria JC.(2015 in press) Plant Cell, Tissue and Organ Culture (PCTOC)doi: 10.1007/s11240-014-0660-8
"Increasing the Pace of New Discoveries in Tropane Alkaloid Biosynthesis". Jan Jirschitzka, Franziska Dolke, John C. D'Auria,. In Nathalie Giglioli-Guivarc'h, editors : Advances In Botanical Research, Vol. 68,Burlington: Academic Press, 2013, pp. 39-72. ISBN: 978-0-12-408061-4
"Selection and validation of reference genes for quantitative gene expression studies in Erythroxylum coca", Docimo, T., Schmidt, G., Luck, K., Delaney, S. K., D'Auria, J (2013).Faculty of 1000 Research,2:37. doi:10.3410/f1000research.2-37.v1.
"Learning from nature: new approaches to the metabolic engineering of plant defense pathways", Jirschitzka, J., Mattern, D. J.,Gershenzon, J., D'Auria, J. (2013).Current Opinion in Biotechnology,24(2),320-328. doi:10.1016/j.copbio.2012.10.014.
"The biosynthesis of hydroxycinnamoyl quinate esters and their role in the storage of cocaine in Erythroxylum coca." Pardo-Torre, J., Schmidt,G., Paetz, C., Reichelt, M., Schneider, B., Gershenzon, J.' D'Auria, J. (2013). Phytochemistry, 91, 177-186. doi:10.1016/j.phytochem.2012.09.009
"The first step in the biosynthesis of cocaine in Erythroxylum coca: the characterization of arginine and ornithine decarboxylases.", Docimo, T., Reichelt, M., Schneider, B., Kunert, G., Gershenzon, J., D'Auria, J. ( 2012).Plant Molecular Biology, 78(6), 599-615. doi:10.1007/s11103-012-9886-1.
"Plant tropane alkaloid biosynthesis evolved independently in the Solanaceae and Erythroxylaceae.", Jirschitzka, J., Schmidt, G., Reichelt, M., Schneider, B., Gershenzon, J., D'Auria, J. (2012). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of Amercia, 109(26), 10304-10309. doi:10.1073/pnas.1200473109.
"Contribution of CoA ligases to benzenoid biosynthesis in Petunia flowers. ", Klempien, A.; Kaminaga, Y.; Qualley, A.; Nagegowda, D. A., Widhalm, J. R., Orlova, I., Shasany, A. K., Taguchi, G., Kish, C. M., Cooper, B. R., D'Auria, J., Rhodes, D., Pichersky, E., Dudareva, N. (2012). The Plant Cell, 24,2014-2030. doi:10.1105/tpc.112.097519.
"Evaluation of candidate reference genes for real-time quantitative PCR of plant samples using purified cDNA as template.", Phillips, M., D'Auria, J., Luck, K.; Gershenzon, J. (2009).Plant Molecular Biology Reporter, 27(3), 407-416. doi:10.1007/s11105-008-0072-1.
+ More


Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry