The UC Davis College of Biological Sciences has named Oliver Fiehn, professor of molecular and cellular biology, to the Paul K. and Ruth R. Stumpf Professorship in Plant Biochemistry.
An internationally recognized scholar, Fiehn has more than 220 publications to his name. He has driven significant developments in the field of metabolomics, the study of small molecules known as metabolites. Metabolites are the end products of cellular processes and form the chemistry of all life.
The Role of Plant Metabolites
Fiehn’s research centers on the systematic analysis of plant metabolites, which provide the essential functions for plant survival. He seeks to understand and categorize plant metabolic profiles to help provide a snapshot of the cellular physiology of different species.
“Metabolism occurs in every living cell and therefore I have complete freedom to study planet Earth and everything that lives on it,” said Fiehn, whose enthusiasm for science is infectious. “The fun part with phytochemistry and plant biology is that everything I find is made by plants.”
Fiehn holds appointments in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology as well as the Genome Center, where he serves as the director of the National Institutes of Health West Coast Metabolomics Center. The center aids research and exploration in the role of metabolomics in disease progression.
“The strengths of UC Davis in plant sciences, health and chemistry come together nicely at the Metabolomics Center,” said Fiehn. “As director, I aim to elevate the role of informatics in understanding complex regulation of metabolism, which is influenced by advances in big data and collaboration across UC Davis.”
Fiehn joined UC Davis in 2004 after completing a postdoc and an assistant professorship at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular and Plant Physiology in Potsdam, Germany.
At the Intersection of Plant Metabolism and Big Data
While most people think of metabolism in terms of the food they eat and energy derived from food, plants synthesize hundreds of thousands of other compounds to ensure their survival. This complex machinery allows plants to survive in an array of environments, from rain-starved deserts to lush rainforests. Metabolites protect plants from environmental threats and provide the means for reproduction.
Metabolites vary significantly from species to species. There are close to 400,000 known plant species and each one has its own specific metabolic repertoire, which is tailored to the species’ ecological niche.
These chemical compounds accomplish a variety of tasks. Flowering plants developed vibrant colors and alluring scents to attract pollinating insects, which assist with fertilization. The tobacco plant, for example, produced nicotine as a chemical defense from pests. The scent of a fresh-cut lawn comes from a compound that helps grass cells heal wounds.
Though plants appear silent, their metabolites are constantly sending messages through their environments. “The communication of plants is a chemical communication,” said Fiehn.
Tasked with identifying a seemingly infinite variety of metabolites is intimidating at best. But through advances in mass spectrometry and big data, Fiehn is developing tools for researchers to categorize and share information about plant compounds. A proponent of open access to scientific data, Fiehn has created the MassBank of North America, a free digital repository of metabolite mass spectra. It works like a digitized field guide, providing researchers with insights into metabolite chemical structures.
“Other people can download the spectra, and next time they see the characteristics that match the profile, they can identify the metabolite,” Fiehn said. “It’s a little bit like a dictionary.”
But the database is just getting started. Since not all chemical compounds are readily available for profiling, Fiehn is exploring new methods to try to virtually predict the mass spectra of plant metabolites.
“Ultimately, we would like to predict the metabolic repertoire of plants just by examining their genome,” he said, noting that it’s an ambitious endeavor.
The tools and databases Fiehn and his colleagues are developing have many potential applications in biomedical and health research. When ingested, plant-produced metabolites pass through and are often stored in the human body, where they can have implications for overall health. Many chemical compounds responsible for the flavors and pigments of plants are known for their disease preventative properties.
“We specifically want to understand the impact of nutrition and disease, including the effects of microbiota changes,” said Fiehn.
Recognizing Excellence in Plant Biochemistry
The resources from the Stumpf Professorship open the possibility of bringing more students interested in phytochemistry to his lab.
“We take our mission of research and education very seriously,” he said. “I usually have four to six undergraduate students working with me, for example, on secondary plant metabolite spectral libraries. We will now push forward with this theme and I would love to enroll students who would like to use informatics tools.”
“Oliver Fiehn’s work in plant metabolomics is driving a greater understanding of plant traits and how we utilize these characteristics to advance scientific knowledge,” said Mark Winey, dean of the College of Biological Sciences. “His research continues the passion and spirit of scientific inquiry that Paul Stumpf brought to plant biology.”
The Stumpf Professorship is awarded to a senior faculty member in the Departments of Plant Biology and Molecular and Cellular Biology whose distinguished scholarship is nationally recognized. The endowment will help support Fiehn’s research, teaching and service to the UC Davis community for the next five to seven years.
Established in 1999, the endowed professorship was formed by the late Paul K. and Ruth R. Stumpf. Paul Stumpf, a professor and founding father of biochemistry programs at UC Davis, pioneered the study of plant lipids and received many accolades for his contributions to the field. He was a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and was twice named as a Guggenheim Foundation Fellow, among many other accomplishments. Stumpf passed away on Feb. 10, 2007.