UBNow features the work of Zhen Wang


Pictured, from left: Zhen Q. Wang, assistant professor of biological sciences, is leading the project. Lab members include PhD students Indu Raghavan and Emily Carroll, and undergraduate researcher Zahin Hossain, who has since graduated. Photo: Douglas Levere

Dr. Zhen Wang's research project aims to pinpoint the genes that plants use to produce medicinal compounds could enable scientists to explore faster, more efficient methods of manufacturing these substances. This could include genetically engineering microbes to synthesize the drugs. One goal of the project is to decipher how the foxglove plant Digitalis lanata makes compounds called cardenolides, which have pharmaceutical relevance. See feature by UB Now.

Study aims to decipher how plants make cardenolide compounds

Nature's medicine cabinet

Many plants make chemicals that can treat human disease. But how, exactly, do they do this? What genes do plants use to produce the medicinal compounds? Unraveling these biological pathways could lead to better methods of manufacturing drugs, and that’s precisely what UB biologist Zhen Q. Wang is looking to do. Photos: Douglas Levere

Published August 15, 2022

Faculty Profile

  • Zhen Q. Wang


    Zhen Q. Wang, PhD.

    Zhen Q. Wang


    Zhen Q. Wang


    Assistant Professor
    Undergraduate Fellowship Coordinator

    Research Interests

    Synthetic biology and plant natural products


    • PhD, Michigan State University
    • Postdoctoral Research, University of California, Berkeley

    Research Summary

    Healing with medicinal plants is as old as humankind itself. Even today, some of the most extensively used drugs such as aspirin, morphine, and quinine are directly extracted from plants. Unlike synthetic drugs, plant natural products are evolutionarily pre-selected chemicals against a wide spectrum of pathogens and other stresses in the environment. However, most plant-based medicines, although biologically effective, have not entered the realm of modern medicine. The biggest challenge is the lack of effective and sustainable methods for producing plant-based medicines because they are present at extremely low concentrations, sometimes less than 0.0001% of fresh weight. The current strategy of farming host plants is unlikely to meet the increasing demand for plant-derived drugs. In addition, these natural products usually have complex chemical structures, and conventional drug synthesis has not been able to produce them in a cost-effective manner.

    The long-term goal in my laboratory is to provide alternative solutions for the sustainable and economical production of plant-based medicines through metabolic engineering and synthetic biology. In particular, we build novel metabolic pathways and reroute native pathways in microorganisms such as E. coli and yeast for the production of plant-derived drugs. Our current focus is terpene, the largest family of plant natural products. Many essential medicines including anti-cancer drug paclitaxel, vinblastine, and vincristine, are terpenes or terpene derivatives. Moreover, a complete understanding of biosynthesis pathways in host plants precedes any engineering efforts for scalable production of plant-based medicines. To this end, we are investigating the missing genes in the biosynthesis of digoxin—an important medicine on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) list of essential medicines for the treatment of heart failure. With the unprecedented technological advancement including DNA synthesis, -omics tools, and genome editing in recent years, we hope to tap into the great diversity of plant natural products to benefit the human health."

    Selected Publications

    • Carroll, E., Ravi Gopal, B., Raghavan, I., Wang, Z.Q*. The P450 CYP87A4 imparts sterol side-chain cleavage in digoxin biosynthesis. Nature Communications. 14: 4042 (2023). (Link) 
    • Mukherjee, M., Blair, R., Wang, Z.Q.* Machine-learning guided elucidation of contribution of individual steps in the mevalonate pathway and construction of a yeast platform strain for terpenoid production. Metabolic Engineering . 74:139-149 (2022). (Link)
    • Raghavan, I., Ravi Gopal, B., Carroll, E., Wang, Z.Q.* Cardenolide increase in foxglove after 2,1,3-benzothiadiazole treatment reveals a potential link between cardenolide and phytosterol biosynthesis. Plant and Cell Physiology. pcac144 (2022). (Link)
    • Mukherjee, M., Wang, Z.Q.* A Well-characterized polycistronic-like gene expression system in yeast. Biotechnology and Bioengineering. 120(1):260-271 (2022). (Link)
    • Wang, Z.Q., Song, H., Koleski, E.J. et al. A dual cellular–heterogeneous catalyst strategy for the production of olefins from glucose. Nat. Chem. 13, 1178–1185 (2021). (Link)
    • Mukherjee, M., Carroll, E., Wang, Z.Q.*, Rapid assembly of multi-gene constructs using modular Golden Gate cloning. Journal of Visualized Experiments. Feb. 2021. 168: e61993 (link)
    • Swayambhu, G., Raghavan, I., Ravi, B.G., Pfeifer, B.A.*, Wang, Z.Q.* Salicylate glucoside as a non-toxic plant protectant alternative to salicylic acid. ACS Agricultural Science and Technology, Aug. 2021. (link)
    • Ravi Gopal, B., Guardian, M.G., Dickman, R., Wang, Z.Q.*, High-resolution tandem mass spectrometry dataset reveals fragmentation patterns of cardiac glycosides in leaves of the foxglove plants. Data Brief 2020; 30;105464 (Link)
    • Ravi Gopal, B., Guardian, M.G., Dickman, R., Wang, Z.Q.*, Profiling and structural analysis of cardiac glycosides in two species of Digitalis using high-resolution tandem mass spectrometry. J. Chromatography A, 2020; 1618; 460903 (Link)
    • Wang, Z., Benning, C. Specific Detection and Quantification of Phosphatidic Acid Using the Arabidopsis TGD4 Protein. S. Patent 8,629,251 B2, 2014 (link)
    • Wang, Z., Anderson, N.S., Benning, C. The Phosphatidic Acid Binding Site of the Arabidopsis TGD4 Protein Required for Lipid Import into Chloroplasts Journal of Biological Chemistry 2013; 228(7); 4763-4771 (pdf)
    • Wang, Z., Benning, C. Chloroplast Lipid Synthesis and Lipid Trafficking Through ER-to-Plastid Membrane Contact Sites. Biochemistry Society Transactions 2012; 40(2): 457-63 (pdf)
    • Wang, Z., Xu, C., Benning, C. TGD4 Involved in ER-to-Chloroplast Lipid Trafficking   is a Phosphatidic Acid Binding Protein. The Plant Journal 2012; 70(4): 614-623 (pdf)
    • Wang, Z., Benning, C. Arabidopsis thaliana Polar Glycerolipid Profiling by Thin Layer Chromatography (TLC) Coupled with Gas-Liquid Chromatography (GLC) Journal of Visualized Experiments e2518 (pdf)
    • Roston, R., Moellering E.R., Gao, J, Wang, Z., Muthan, B., Benning, C. Membrane Lipid Metabolism and Trafficking during Chloroplast Development and Maintenance Chemistry and Physics of Lipids 2010; 163; S16 (pdf)