Guangyu Chen

Tenure-track Associate Professor

  • Tel: +86-021-34204261
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  • Address: 124, No. 8 building in Nanyang Beiyuan, Zhangjiali Road 360, Shanghai
  • Tenure-track associate professor, PI in Photosynthesis and Synthetic Biology. BSc, Tsinghua University. PhD, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of Sheffield. Achieved complete chlorophyll biosynthesis in E. coli in postdoctoral research. 1 co-authored and 7 first-authored papers including 1 Nat. Plants, 2 PNAS and 1 Sci. Adv.

Education and Research Experience

  • 12/2020 – present, Tenure-track Associate Professor, School of Life Sciences and Biotechnology, Shanghai Jiao Tong University
  • 11/2016 – 11/2020, Postdoctoral Research Associate, supervised by Professor C. Neil Hunter FRS, Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, University of Sheffield, UK
  • 10/2012 – 10/2016, PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, supervised by Professor C. Neil Hunter FRS, Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, University of Sheffield, UK
  • 09/2011 – 07/2012, Research Assistant, School of Environment, Tsinghua University
  • 09/2007 – 07/2011, BSc in Biological Sciences, School of Life Sciences, Tsinghua University

Research Interests

The Sun-Chlorophylls-Earth

All living things on Earth depend on the Sun. Photosynthesis maintains the entire biosphere on Earth. As crucial factors for photosynthesis, chlorophylls link the Sun, which is 150 million kilometers away, to the life on Earth. Studying the molecular mechanisms of chlorophyll biosynthesis and photosynthesis is not only to satisfy our curiosity, but also to provide knowledge reserves for solving the many challenges faced by humanity. 

Cyclase – the enzyme catalyzing the ‘red to green’ reaction in chlorophyl...

Chlorophylls are cyclic tetrapyrrole molecules with unique chemical structures including a central magnesium ion and a fifth ring. The formation of the fifth ring causes a color change from ‘red’ to ‘green’, giving rise to the absorption lineshape of chlorophylls. There are two completely different enzymes that catalyze the formation of this ring, one is O2-sensitive and the other depends on O2. The O2-dependent one can be subdivided into three classes in photosynthetic organisms based on whether it requires an auxiliary subunit. As my mentor C. Neil Hunter once summarized, as biochemists we aim to (1) obtain all reactants, i.e. proteins and substrates, in a pure, active state and work with known concentrations to (2) measure quantitative kinetics for the enzyme reaction in question, in order to (3) elucidate the reaction mechanism in terms of the chemical intermediates. We will use this as a guideline to study the biochemical properties of cyclase in combination with structural biological approaches in order to pinpoint the key amino acid residues involved in the reaction, and to elucidate details of the electron transfer process required by the reaction. We will also work on the activity and regulation of cyclase, and its interaction with other chlorophyll biosynthetic enzymes in model photosynthetic organisms.

Expanding the spectral utilization of phototrophs by introducing foreign pho...

Phototrophs adapt to the available light resources in their niche via specific types of photosynthetic pigments and systems. A certain phototroph can only use a limited range of the solar spectrum. By using genetic engineering, we will break through the evolutionary gap so to splice the pigment biosynthetic pathways, to modify the inherent photosystems, and to assemble foreign photosystems in model photosynthetic organisms. We aim to understand the complex assembly mechanisms of photosystems and to obtain engineered ‘broad-spectrum’ photosynthetic bacteria that can make better use of solar energy.

Bottom-up construction of photosystems in heterotrophic organisms

In this long-term project, we attempt to integrate all our knowledge of photosynthesis and use the methodology of genetic engineering and synthetic biology to gradually build a photosystem from the bottom up in heterotrophic microorganisms. At the initial stage we will conduct the project in prokaryotes, mainly E. coli, and later the plan may be extended to eukaryotic microorganisms, such as yeast. This project is extremely challenging, and its ultimate goal is to establish a functional photosystem in heterotrophic organisms that is able to harvest light energy and carry out photochemical reactions in harmony with the energy metabolism of the host.

Selected Publications

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    Chen GE, Adams NBP, Jackson PJ, Dickman MJ, Hunter CN. (2021) How the O2-dependent Mg-protoporphyrin monomethyl ester cyclase forms the fifth ring of chlorophylls. Nat Plants 7: 365-375


    Chen GE, Hitchcock A, Mareš J, Gong Y, Tichý M, Pilný J, Kovářová L, Zdvihalová B, Xu J, Hunter CN, Sobotka R* (2021) Evolution of Ycf54-independent chlorophyll biosynthesis in cyanobacteria. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 118: e2024633118


    Chen GE, Hunter CN*. (2020) Protochlorophyllide synthesis by recombinant cyclases from eukaryotic oxygenic phototrophs and the dependence on Ycf54. Biochem J 477: 2313


    Chen GE, Canniffe DP, Barnett SFH, Hollingshead S, Brindley AA, Vasilev C, Bryant DA, Hunter CN*. (2018) Complete enzyme set for chlorophyll biosynthesis in Escherichia coli. Sci Adv 4: eaaq1407 (Recommended in F1000Prime as being of special significance in its field)


    Chen GE, Canniffe DP*, Hunter CN. (2017) Three classes of oxygen-dependent cyclase involved in chlorophyll and bacteriochlorophyll biosynthesis. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 114: 6280

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    Chen GE, Canniffe DP*, Martin EZ, Hunter CN. (2016) Absence of the cbb3 terminal oxidase reveals an active oxygen-dependent cyclase involved in bacteriochlorophyll biosynthesis in Rhodobacter sphaeroides. J Bacteriol 198: 2056


    Chen GE, Hitchcock A, Jackson PJ, Chaudhuri RR, Dickman MJ, Hunter CN, Canniffe DP*. (2016) Two unrelated 8-vinyl reductases ensure production of mature chlorophylls in Acaryochloris marina. J Bacteriol 198: 1393


    Hollingshead S, Kopečná J, Armstrong DR, Bučinská L, Jackson PJ, Chen GE, Dickman MJ, Williamson MP, Sobotka R, Hunter CN* (2016) Synthesis of chlorophyll-binding proteins in a fully segregated Δycf54 strain of the cyanobacterium Synechocystis PCC 6803. Front Plant Sci 7:292