Philipp Zerbe

image of Philipp Zerbe

Assistant Professor


Plant Biology

Offices and Labs

LSA 1220
LSA 1211, 1215


2007 PhD Plant Physiology Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany

Research Contribution

Plants are Nature's Master Chemists - They produce a staggering diversity of small molecule metabolites to survive, thrive and communicate in a constantly changing environment for life spans of up to several hundred years. Terpenoids are one of the most diverse metabolite classes essential for plant development and fitness. Many terpenoids are also valued as therapeutics, food additives, fragrances, biofuels and other bio-based products of everyday modern life. Our group seeks to illuminate the genetic and biochemical features that contribute to the vast natural variation of plant specialized (also termed secondary) metabolism, and translate this knowledge into innovative biotechnology applications to meet the needs of society for a source of bioproducts. To accomplish these research goals, we study terpenoid metabolism in a range of medicinal, food and bioenergy plants. We combine metabolomics- and transcriptomics-guided gene discovery with various genetic, protein biochemical and structural-functional studies to gain insight into the often lineage-specific evolutionary diversification, molecular organization and biological relevance of terpenoid metabolism. As extraction of desired terpenoids from natural sources is often unsustainable, the portfolio of newly-discovered genes, enzymes and pathways forms the framework necessary to develop pathway engineering platforms for bioproduct manufacture.

Research Interests

Discovery, characterization and engineering of plant terpenoid metabolism


2015 Arthur C. Neish Young Investigator Award (Phytochemical Society of North America)
2016/17 Hellman Fellowship

Department and Center Affiliations

Plant Biology Department


American Society of Plant Biologist (ASPB)
Phytochemical Society of North America (PSNA)
American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
Metabolomics Association of North America (MANA)
American Chemical Society (ACS)

CBS Grad Group Affiliations

Biochemistry, Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology
Plant Biology

Specialties / Focus

Biochemistry, Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology
  • Genomics, Proteomics and Metabolomics
Plant Biology
  • Molecular Biology, Biochemistry and Genomics

Graduate Groups not Housed in CBS

Designated Emphasis in Biotechnology Program


Zerbe Lab website

Teaching Interests

Biochemistry, Plant Metabolism, Plant Biotechnology, Natural Products


BIS 103 Bioenergetics/Metabolism (Fall)
PBGG 200B Specialized Metabolism (Winter)
PBI 298 Plant Specialized Metabolism (Spring)
FRS 004 Project Link - First-Year Seminar
FRS 004 CURE: PLant Biotechnology (Winter)
MCB 299 Research
PLB 199 Special Study
PLB 197T Tutoring

Personal Interests

Mountain biking, Trail running, Doing Science website


12/10/2017 5:14:47 PM
  • Mafu S, Zerbe P (2017) Plant diterpenoid metabolism for manufacturing the biopharmaceuticals of tomorrow: prospects and challenges. Phytochem. Rev. doi:10.1007/s11101-017-9513-5

  • Pelot KA, Hagelthorn DM, Addison JB, Zerbe P (2017) Biosynthesis of the oxygenated diterpene nezukol in the medicinal plant Isodon rubescens is catalyzed by a pair of diterpene synthases. PLoS One12,e0176507

  • Mafu S, Karunanithi PS, Palazzo TA, Harrod BL, Rodriguez SM, Mollhoff IN, O'Brien TE, Tong S, Fiehn O, Tantillo DJ, Bohlmann J, Zerbe P (2017) Biosynthesis of the microtubule-destabilizing diterpene pseudolaric acid B from golden larch involves an unusual diterpene synthase.  Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 114, 974-9

  • Pelot K, Mitchell R, Kwon M, Hagelthorn DM, Wardman JF, Chiang A, Bohlmann J, Ro DK, Zerbe P (2016) Biosynthesis of the psychotropic diterpene salvinorin A: Disocvery and characterization of the Salvia divinorum clerodienyl diphosphate synthase. Plant J.  89,885-97

  • Mafu S, Fischer E, Addison JB, Riberio Barbosa I, Zerbe P (2016) Substitution of two active site residues alters C9-hydroxylation in a class II diterpene synthase. ChemBioChem 17, 2304-7.

  • Wu X, Chen X, Dan J, Cao Y, Gao S, Guo Z, Zerbe P, Chai Y, Diao Y, Zhnag L (2016) Characterization of anti-leukemia components from Indigo naturalis using comprehensive two-dimensional K562/cell membrane chromatography and in silico target identification. Sci. Rep. 6, 25491

  • Andersen-Ranberg J, Kongstad KT, Nielsen MT, Jensen NB, Pateraki I, Bach SS, Hamberger B, Zerbe P, Staerk D, Bohlmann J, Møller BL, Hamberger B (2016) Expanding the landscape of diterpene structural diversity through stereochemically controlled combinatorial biosynthesis. Angew. Chem. 55, 2142-6.

  • Chen R, Li Q, Tan H, Chen J, Xiao Y, Ma R, Gao S, Zerbe P, Chen W, Zhang L (2015) Gene-to-Metabolite network for biosynthesis of lignans in MeJA-elicited Isatis indigotica hairy root cultures. Front. Plant Sci. 6, 952.

  • Zerbe P, Rodriguez SM, Mafu S, Chiang A, Sandhu HK, O'Neil-Johnson M, Starks CM, Bohlmann J (2015) Exploring diterpene metabolism in non-model species: Transcriptome-enabled discovery and functional characterization of labda-7,13E-dienyl diphosphate synthase from Grindelia robusta. Plant Journal doi: 10.1111/tpj.12925.
  • Zerbe P and Bohlmann J (2015) Plant diterpene synthases: exploring modularity and metabolic diversity for bioengineering. Trends in Biotechnology 3, 419-28.

  • Zerbe P (2015) Small molecules with big impact: terpenoid phytoalexins as key factors in maize stress tolerance. Plant, Cell & Environment doi: 10.1111/pce.12523 (invited commentary).

  • Zerbe P and Bohlmann J (2015) Enzymes for synthetic biology of ambroxide-related diterpenoid fragrance compounds. In Advances in Biochemical Engineering/Biotechnology 148, 427-47.

  • Zerbe P, Chiang A, Dullat H, O'Neil-Johnson M, Starks C, Hamberger B, Bohlmann J (2014) Diterpene synthases of the biosynthetic system of medicinally active diterpenoids in Marrubium vulgare. The Plant Journal 79, 914-927.

  • Roach CR, Hall DE, Zerbe P, Bohlmann J (2014) Plasticity and evolution of (+)-3-carene synthase and (-)-sabinene synthase functions of a Sitka Spruce monoterpene synthase gene family associated with weevil resistance. Journal of Biological Chemistry 289, 23859-69.

  • Pateraki I, Andersen-Ranberg J, Hamberger Br, Heskes AM, Martens HJ, Zerbe P, Spanner Bach S, Møller BL, Bohlmann J, and Hamberger BR (2013) Manoyl oxide (13R), the biosynthetic precursor of forskolin, is synthesized in specialized root cork cells in Coleus forskohlii. Plant Physiology 164, 1222-36.

  • Zerbe P, Hamberger BR, Yuen M, Chiang A, Sandhu HK, Madilao L, Ngyuen A, Hamberger B, Bach SS and Bohlmann J (2013a) Gene discovery of modular diterpene metabolism in non-model systems. Plant Physiology 162, 1073-91.

  • Zerbe P and Bohlmann J (2013b) Metabolic engineering of terpene synthases of conifer defense: bioproducts, biofuels and perfumes. Recent Advances in Phytochemistry, Vol. 44, Springer, pages 85-108.

  • Nystedt B et al. (2013) The Norway spruce genome sequence and conifer genome evolution. Nature 497, 579-84.

  • Xiao M, Zhang Y, Chen X, Lee EJ, Barber C, Chakrabarty R, Desgagné-Penix I, Haslam TM, Kim YB, Liu E, Macnevin G, Masada-Atsumi S, Reed D, Stout JM, Zerbe P, Zhang Y, Bohlmann J, Covello PS, De Luca V, Page JE, Ro DK, Martin VJ, Facchini PJ and Sensen CW (2013) Transcriptome analysis based on next-generation sequencing of non-model plants producing specialized metabolites of biotechnological interest. Journal of Biotechnology S0168-1656 00184-3.

  • Hall DE, Zerbe P, Jancsik S, Quesada AL, Dullat H, Madilao LL, Yuen M and Bohlmann J (2013) Evolution of conifer diterpene synthases: Diterpene resin acid biosynthesis in lodgepole pine and jack pine involves monofunctional and bifunctional diterpene synthases. Plant Physiology 161, 600-16.

  • Caniard A, Zerbe P, Legrand S, Cohade A, Valot N, Magnard J-L, Bohlmann J and Legendre L (2012) Discovery and functional characterization of two diterpene synthases for sclareol biosynthesis in Salvia sclarea and their relevance for perfume manufacture. BMC Plant Biology 12, 119.

  • Zerbe P, Chiang A, Yuen M, Hamberger BR, Hamberger B, Draper JA, Britton R and Bohlmann J (2012a) Bifunctional cis-abienol synthase from Abies balsamea discovered by transcriptome sequencing and its implications for diterpenoid fragrance production. Journal of Biological Chemistry 287, 12121-31

  • Zerbe P, Chiang A and Bohlmann J (2012b) Mutational analysis of white spruce (Picea glauca) ent-kaurene synthase (PgKS) reveals common and distinct mechanisms of conifer diterpene synthases of general and specialized metabolism. Phytochemistry 74, 30-39.

  • Keeling CI, Madilao LL, Zerbe P, Dullat HK and Bohlmann J (2011) The primary diterpene synthase products of Picea abies levopimaradiene/abietadiene synthase (PaLAS) are epimers of a thermally unstable diterpenol. Journal of Biological Chemistry 286, 21145-53.

  • Bleeker PM, Spyropoulou EA, Diergaarde PJ, Volpin H, De Both MTJ, Zerbe P, Bohlmann J, Falara V, Matsuba Y, Pichersky E, Haring MA and Schuurink RC (2011) RNA-seq discovery, functional characterization, and comparison of sesquiterpene synthases from Solanum lycopersicum and Solanum habrochaites trichomes. Plant Molecular Biology 77, 323-36.

  • Schaller FS, Zerbe P, Reinbothe S, Reinbothe C, Hofmann E and Pollmann S (2007) The allene oxide cyclase family of Arabidopsis thaliana: Localization and cyclization. FEBS Journal 275, 2428-41.

  • Zerbe P, Weiler EW and Schaller FS (2007) Preparative enzymatic solid phase synthesis of cis(+)-12-oxo-phytodienoic acid: Physical interaction of AOS and AOC not necessary. Phytochemistry 68(2), 229-36.

  • Hofmann E, Zerbe P and Schaller FS (2006) The crystal structure of Arabidopsis thaliana allene oxide cyclase: Insights into the oxylipin cyclization reaction. The Plant Cell 18(11), 3201-17.