Phillip Zerbe

2016 Hellman Fellow

Assistant Professor, Plant Biology
UC Davis

Project Title: Establishing the Biochemical Networks for Environmental Stress Tolerance in Maize (Zea mays)

Intensifying climate pressures accompanied by increasing pest and pathogen damage compromise plants’ sophisticated natural defense systems and pose a threat to crop productivity the world over. To address these challenges, a deeper understanding of the complex networks of small molecule natural products that plants employ to cope with environmental stress is needed. Using the world’s largest harvested food, feed and fuel crop maize (Zea mays), Hellman Fellowship support enabled my research team to investigate the biosynthesis and biological function of terpenoid natural products that form the major constituents of the chemical defense system. Integrating rapid gene discovery and combinatorial enzyme assays, we elucidated a previously hidden biosynthetic pathway that forms a group of terpenoids, coined dolabralexins. In vitro bioactivity assays and in vivo generation and analysis of maize knock-out mutants demonstrated both antipathogen and drought-protective properties of dolabralexins, providing deeper knowledge of the diversity and biological relevance of maize terpenoids. These insights into the metabolic network controlling maize stress resilience will offer opportunity to develop new avenues for enhancing crop resilience.


“In light of declining federal funds, receiving the Hellman Fellowship is a tremendous help for me and my young research team to establish a competitive research program – thank you for your support.”