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Christoph Benning

Director, MSU Foundation Professor, University Distinguished Prof

Departments: Biochemistry & Molecular Biology - Plant Biology

Research: Lipid Metabolism in Photosynthetic Organisms

Research in the Benning laboratory focuses on lipid metabolism in photosynthetic organisms. One area of particular interest is the assembly and maintenance of the photosynthetic membrane in plants and algae. The photosynthetic membrane contains a unique set of polar lipids. Their specific functions in photosynthesis, especially during dynamic conditions, is investigated by applying state-of-the-art phenotyping to Arabidopsis and Chlamydomonas lipid mutants.

Different membranes cooperate in the synthesis of lipid precursors needed for the assembly of the photosynthetic membrane. Thus, the lipid transport mechanisms involving chloroplast envelope membranes are investigated.

Dividing cells of Chlamydomonas reihardtii
Dividing cells of the microalga
Chlamydomonas reinhardtii
By Tomomi Takeuchi)

Photosynthetic organisms are exposed to a changing environment which can lead to stress inhibiting growth. Lipid remodeling in response to freezing or nutrient deprivation is an area of intense study in the Benning lab. Nutrient-deprived algae enter a state of cellular quiescence. Cell divisions cease and metabolism is redirected to accumulate storage lipids. The Benning laboratory is identifying factors governing entry into, and exit from quiescence in single-celled algae. Approaches ranging from biochemistry, genetics, and systems biology to modeling are used to gain insights into this process with the goal to optimize algae for biofuel production.

Cells of a microalga with lipid droplets
Cells of the Microalga
Nannochloropsis oceanica CCMP1779 with
lipid droplets (green) and nuclei (blue) visualized
By Agnieszka Zienkiewicz

The Benning laboratory is also involved in the design of novel biofuel plants with enhanced energy density in their vegetative tissues through the induction of storage oil accumulation. Storage lipids are deposited in lipid droplets and their mechanism of formation is investigated in algae. Moreover using a synthetic biology approach, the Benning laboratory is exploring lipid droplets as an enzyme assembly platform for the synthesis of novel compounds.

Leaf blade of a model grass with lipid droplets
Leaf blade of the model grass Brachypodium distachyon
accumulating oil: lipid droplets are visualized in green,
chloroplasts in red
By Agnieszka Zienkiewicz


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  • Ph.D. 1991, Michigan State University
  • M.S. 1986, Albert-Ludwigs Universitaet, Freiburg, Germany


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Benning Lab News

Understanding how algal cells divide when they are hungry Understanding how algal cells divide when they are hungry October 8, 2020

A new study delves into how algae manage cell division processes when they suffer from starvation. The finding has implications for biofuel technologies, given that algae have the potential to become a sustainable source of high value oils.

PRL alumnus Zhi-Yan Du joins University of Hawaii as assistant professor PRL alumnus Zhi-Yan Du joins University of Hawaii as assistant professor July 23, 2020

Du, a former postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Christoph Benning, will start a new position as Assistant Professor in the Department of Molecular Biosciences and Bioengineering at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, Honolulu.

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