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Institute of Biological Chemistry

The Institute of Biological Chemistry (IBC) was established at Washington State University in 1980 to pursue fundamental research in the molecular biology and biochemistry of plants. Work at the IBC focuses on basic plant science with an emphasis on plant derived products synthesis, determinants of plant architecture, bioenergetics, and plant-microbe interacts. The research outcomes have potential applications in agricultural biotechnology, bioenergy, and medicine.

For more information about specific research programs in the IBC, please call us at (509) 335-8382, fax to (509) 335-7643 or email us at

IBC News and Updates


An international group of scientists, including Dr. Mark Lange at the Institute of Biological Chemistry, received a $4 million grant from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, part of the National Institutes of Health, to work on developing novel approaches for the production of taxol, one of the best-selling anti-cancer drugs on the market (for details see full article).


Washington State University researchers have for the first time grown the bacteria in a laboratory that causes Citrus Greening Disease, considered the world’s most harmful citrus disease.

Being able to grow the elusive and poorly understood bacterium, Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus (CLas), will make it easier for researchers to find treatments for the disease that has destroyed millions of acres of orange, grapefruit and lemon groves around the world and has devastated the citrus industry in Florida.

The researchers, including Phuc Ha, postdoctoral research associate, Haluk Beyenal, Paul Hohenschuh Professor in the Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering, David Gang and Ruifeng He, from WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry, Anders Omsland, from the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health, and researchers from the University of Florida and University of Arizona, report on their work in the journal, Biofilm (Full Article).


The WSU-NIH Biotechnology Predoctoral Training Grant in Protein Biotechnology, led by PI Michael Kahn, was successfully renewed for the sixth time for 2019-2024. It will now have been continuously funded for 35 years and is the only Program that has had uninterrupted funding since the NIH started to fund Biotechnology Training Grants in 1989. The only other Biotechnology Training Grants in the west are at Stanford, Berkeley, Caltech, UCLA, and UCSD. The award for this renewal includes NIH slots for ten PhD students with a total award of approximately $2.3 Million. Over 150 PhD students have been associated with WSU’s program, which involves four colleges and five graduate units (currently Immunology and Infectious Disease, Molecular Biosciences, Molecular Plant Sciences, Chemistry, and Chemical Engineering).


The Lange laboratory at the Institute of Biological Chemistry published a breakthrough study demonstrating a link between the formation of cannabinoids and aroma-related terpenoids in marijuana and hemp strains of cannabis.  The paper also suggests new approaches for the broader analysis of these metabolites, thus contributing to an improved quality control in the industry.  This work, which appeared in the August issue of the journal Plant Physiology, was featured in news articles in Forbes Magazine, National Geographic, The Spokesman Review, Science Daily, The Columbian, and is currently ranked among the most discussed (99th percentile) science articles in social media, according to Altmetric, a data science company that tracks where published research is mentioned online.


Alex Alleman (graduate student in Peters Lab) won best poster presentation and Rachel DeTar (graduate student in Kirchhoff Lab) won best student oral presentation at the international Cluster of Excellence on Plant Sciences (CEPLAS) Transatlantic Summer School – Frontiers in Plant Sciences, May 27-31, 2019. They are pictured with Stan Kopriva, head of CEPLAS. The international CEPLAS Summer School offers an opportunity to learn about current topics, to delve into state-of-the-art plant science and to network with fellow early career scientists and well-known experts in the field.


WSU scientists measuring how plants convert light to energy

Plants take sunlight and turn it into energy, but scientists are still figuring out exactly how they do this complex conversion.

“Photosynthesis can be dangerous,” said Helmut Kirchhoff, an associate professor in WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry. “At the point where light is collected, the energy is there. That energy has to be deactivated right away and transferred to different parts of the plant or it can damage the plant.”

Because sunlight fluctuates—with clouds or as the sun travels and shadows are cast—plants react to different light environments to stay safe and not make more energy than they can process, Kirchhoff said.

Now Kirchhoff and his colleagues have developed a way to monitor how plants adjust these photosynthetic functions.

“We developed a way to measure the components of this energy converting machinery,” he said. “To understand the process, you have to know the exact ratio of components. And now we can measure that.”

Kirchhoff’s results are available in the February 2019 issue of The Plant Journal. His article, “The structural and functional domains of plant thylakoid membranes,” is featured on the cover. The journal also highlighted the research with this story. (Full Article)


WSU researchers tease out genetic differences between cannabis strains

Research from Washington State University could provide government regulators with powerful new tools for addressing a bevy of commercial claims and other concerns as non-medical marijuana, hemp and CBD products become more commonplace. The new analysis of the genetic and chemical characteristics of cannabis is believed to be the first thorough examination of its kind.

The current method is inadequate, says Mark Lange, a professor in WSU’s Institute for Biological Chemistry. Regulators focus on levels of the psychoactive compound THC and just a handful of the more than 90 other cannabinoids. The industry makes various claims about different strains, from sedating indicas to invigorating sativas, Acapulco Gold to Zkittlez, but they defy objective analysis.

“There is a reason why all these strains have different names – because a lot of them are very different,” said Lange. “But some strains with different names are actually very similar. The bottom line is there is a lot of confusion.”

Until now. (Full article)


Two undergraduates from Andrei Smertenko’s Lab, Jessica Fisher and Austin Lenssen (both standing next to Andrei to the far right), won a Novice award at the 2019 Showcase for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (SURCA) showcase. Washington State University undergraduates are conducting research, pursuing scholarship, and/or involved in creative activities in partnership with a mentor. The students’ efforts make original intellectual or creative contributions to a discipline. SURCA invites undergraduate presenters who are in the early stages of their research as well as those who are more experienced. The Novice, Early Career, Crimson, and Gray awards provide students with all levels of experience an opportunity to compete for awards. Awards are made in eight categories of disciplines.


Ronald Nugen was awarded the Administrative Professional Technical Staff Excellence Award for 2018 at the CAHNRS Faculty & Staff Award Recognition Night.  This award recognizes contributions to a productive workplace through leadership and collegial activities, as well as professional and ethical behavior. This award recognizes the quality and quantity of the recipient’s work and contributions to the College’s mission, image, and goals.


At the IBC Holiday Party in December 2018, the following graduate students received awards:

Kaan Koper in Dr. Tom Okita’s Lab received a 2018-2019 Helen and Loyal H. Davis Fellowship. This Research Fellowship consists of a stipend for calendar year 2019 and a cash award of $3,000 to spend for travel to a professional conference and/or research supplies.


Jesse Bengtsson in Dr. John Browse’s Lab received a 2018-2019 John & Maggie McDougall Scholarship.  The Scholarship carries a cash award of $3,000 to spend for travel to a professional conference and/or research supplies.


Alex Alleman in Dr. John Peters’ Lab and Olivia Oung in Dr. Helmut Kirchhoff’s Lab received the Clarence “Bud” Ryan Institute of Biological Chemistry Travel Scholarship for the 2019-2020 academic year in the amount of $1000.  The travel scholarships were made possible through a endowment gift by Pat Ryan (wife of the late Bud Ryan – pictured left with the award recipients).


Natasha Pence, a graduate student in John Peters’ lab, was selected as an awardee of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science Graduate Student Research (SCGSR) Program. The SCGSR program awards outstanding U.S. graduate students the opportunity to pursue part of their graduate thesis research at a DOE laboratory in areas that address the scientific challenges that are central to the mission of the Office of Science.

Natasha’s dissertation work involves elucidating mechanisms of electron and proton transport to nitrogenase and hydrogenase. The proposal, co-authored by Dr. Wendy Shaw at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, WA and Professor Peters, involves using solution state NMR to establish design principles that define and control proton transport in [FeFe] hydrogenase.


Interior northwest Indians used tobacco long before European contact

Washington State University researchers have determined that Nez Perce Indians grew and smoked tobacco at least 1,200 years ago, long before the arrival of traders and settlers from the eastern United States. Their finding upends a long-held view that indigenous people in this area of the interior Pacific Northwest smoked only kinnikinnick or bearberry before traders brought tobacco starting around 1790.

Shannon Tushingham, a WSU assistant professor and director of its Museum of Anthropology, made the discovery after teaming up with David Gang, a professor in the Institute of Biological Chemistry, to analyze pipes and pipe fragments in the museum’s collection. (Full Article)


Dr. John A. Browse, Regents Professor, has been elected to the Washington State Academy of Sciences.

New members are accepted in recognition of their outstanding record of scientific achievement and willingness to work on behalf of the academy in bringing the best available science to bear on issues within the state of Washington.

Dr. Browse has made sustained and groundbreaking discoveries over the course of his 40 years as a plant lipid biochemist. He is internationally recognized for developing creative approaches to identify and characterize genes that control the biosynthesis of membrane and storage lipids.


Dr. Philip Bates will be joining the faculty of the IBC in August 2018.

Bates currently holds the position of Nina Bell Suggs Endowed Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at University of Southern Mississippi. His research group utilizes biochemical, genetic and molecular biology approaches to understand the metabolic pathways that allow different plants to produce oils with unique fatty acid compositions, and how we can engineer plants to produce designer oils to meet our nutritional or industrial needs of the future.


Microbes from marine volcanic vents reveal how humans adjusted to a changing atmosphere

Ancient microbes that thrive in some of the world’s most extreme environments and modern-day humans have more in common than meets the eye — namely, they both respire and conserve energy using a similar molecular mechanism, one that has adapted to changing environmental conditions over billions of years.

The findings, published today in Cell by scientists at Van Andel Research Institute (VARI), University of Georgia (UGA) and Washington State University, detail the structure of MBH, a molecular complex involved in microbial respiration. The near-atomic resolution images are the first ever of MBH and show that its structure is remarkably similar to its counterpart in humans, Complex I.

“Nature is really good at finding molecules that work and then modifying them and using them over and over again. This is a prime example,” said Michael W.W. Adams, Ph.D., a UGA Distinguished Research and Georgia Power Professor who has been studying MBH for 20 years. “Knowing the structure of MBH provides us with new insights into how Complex I evolved and how it might work.” (Full Article)


National Science Foundation awards million-dollar funding for role model scientist

Andrei Smertenko is leading the way on the science of long division; long division in trees, that is. The Washington State University molecular biologist studies the cellular architecture of plants in the hopes of helping grow renewable resources faster.

For example, wood is made up of cells, called xylem, and they do something no other cells do: they divide vertically.

But that takes a lot longer than normal cell division. Helping with these divisions are tiny cellular machines called phragmoplasts. Only land plants and their evolutionary ancestor algae make phragmoplasts. 

“Super-long divisions in trees take a long time. Once we understand how the phragmoplast functions, we will be able to engineer trees with faster cell divisions and faster growth,” said Smertenko, a professor in WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry. “Fast-growing trees would produce timber and other renewable materials more quickly.”

Dr. Smertenko recently received National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER program funding for this research into phragmoplasts. The award is for nearly $1 million, spread over five years. (Full Article)


Dr. John Peters has been named a Fellow in the American Academy of Microbiology.

This is Dr. Peters’ second such honor in the last three months — late last fall he was named a Fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science for his contributions in chemistry.

The American Academy of Microbiology represents the American Society for Microbiology, the world’s oldest and largest life science organization. The mission of the Academy is to recognize scientists for outstanding contributions to microbiology and provide microbiological expertise in the service of science and the public. Dr. Peters’ work involves understanding energy use in living creatures at the microbial level. (Full Article)


Dr. Helmut Kirchhoff recently published a journal article on photosynthetic membranes in Nature Plants.

Dr. Kirchhoff—who wrote the article with a former IBC post-doctoral scholar, Sujith Puthiyaveetil, now assistant professor at Purdue, and Bart van Oort, faculty at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam—explores molecular forces that control the structure of energy converting photosynthetic membranes. This research helps to understand how complex structured membranes self-organize and react to environmental dynamics that allows plants to thrive in an ever-changing nature.


Designing Healthy Vegetable Oils

Saturated fat and particularly trans fat in the US diet are serious health risks, responsible for more than 50,000 excess deaths each year.  Dr. John Browse, Regents’ Professor, has been awarded a three-year research grant from USDA-NIFA to alter metabolism in oilseed crops to reduce the levels of saturated and trans fats. Describing the goal of the project, Dr. Browse says, “Our discoveries in the model plant, Arabidopsis, have provided the knowledge needed to improve the composition of processed food oils. Now, we will be able to find out just how far we can go towards eliminating these undesirable saturated and trans fats”.


Dr. John Peters has been named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). 

Election as an AAAS Fellow is a distinction bestowed upon AAAS members by their peers, in recognition of scientifically or socially distinguished efforts to advance science and its applications. AAAS is the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the journal Science (

Dr. Peters’ work examines energy conservation at the molecular level and how life generates energy from food by shearing off electrons. (Full Article)


Most children have a phase where they dream of the far reaches of the universe and working for NASA. Dr. Norman Lewis participated in a NASA outreach project that enabled seventh grade students at McCaffrey Middle School to participate in a project to begin to reveal how biology changes away from Earth’s gravity (Full Article).



Professor John Peters delivered an invited lecture in the opening plenary session at Plant Biology 2017, held in Honolulu, Hawaii, June 2017, at the Hawaii Convention Center.  Professor Peters talk was entitled, “Innovative Solutions for Increasing the Impact of Biological Nitrogen Fixation on Crop Plants”. The annual plant biology meeting is hosted by the American Society for Plant Biologist (ASPB) and has been held for over eight decades and currently attracts more than 1,300 scientists from 40 countries.


The Kirchhoff lab published a paper recently entitled Sublocalization of cytochrome b6f complexes in photosynthetic membranes in Trends in Plant Sciences that presents a structural model that explains the variation in cytochrome b6f sublocalization data. They have been able to show that small changes in the distance between adjacent membranes in stacked grana regions either allow or restrict access of cytochrome b6f complexes to grana. If the width of the gap falls below a certain threshold, then the steric hindrance prevents cytochrome b6f access to grana. Evidence is presented that the width of stromal gap is variable, demonstrating that the postulated mechanism can regulate the lateral distribution of the cytochrome b6f complexes.


Professor Mark Lange assumes the presidency of the Phytochemical Society of North America (PSNA) in August 2017.  PSNA is a nonprofit scientific organization whose membership is open to anyone with an interest in phytochemistry and the role of plant substances in related fields. The PSNA’s mission is to encourage and stimulate research on the chemistry and biochemistry of plant constituents, their effects upon plant and animal physiology and pathology, and their industrial importance and utilization.


President’s Leadership Winners Honored for Mentorship, Volunteerism

Mentors, volunteers and leaders in the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences have earned recognition for how they change the world and help their community. Eleven CAHNRS staff and faculty members, undergraduates and graduate students were presented with the Leadership and Engagement Award of Distinction (LEAD) from the President of Washington State University, April 18 at Pullman’s Compton Union Building. Presented jointly by the WSU Center for Civic Engagement and the Office of Student Involvement, the President’s Award for Leadership and Engagement honors people who show exceptional service, involvement, mentoring, leadership and social change in the university and their community. Two from CAHNRS received Faculty and Staff awards: Marwa Sanad, research associate in the Institute of Biological Chemistry (IBC), and Debbie Christel, assistant professor in the Department of Apparel, Merchandising, Design and Textiles (AMDT).

Drought-Resistant Wheat, Soybeans WSU’s Aim in USDA Grant Research

PULLMAN, Wash. – Researchers at Washington State University seek to improve drought-resistant crops, thanks to more than $900,000 in funding from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). The two projects at WSU were among 54 grants awarded for plant research, totaling more than $17 million, announced May 25 by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s (NIFA) Agriculture and Food Research Initiative program.

Scientists Discover New Method to Harness Energy

PULLMAN, Wash. – A Washington State University professor is part of a team that has unraveled the mechanism of a process that couples chemical reactions in a unique way that conserves energy and prevents loss. The process – which maximizes the efficiency of chemical reactions at the molecular level – could affect everything from synthetic biology to fuel and chemical production.

Tree Growth Model Assists Breeding for More Wood

PULLMAN, Wash. – A meeting in a forest between a biologist and a mathematician could lead to thicker, faster growing trees. “Mathematicians like translating biological processes into numbers,” said Andrei Smertenko, assistant professor in Washington State University’s Institute of Biological Chemistry. “I’m a biologist, and I want to help grow stronger, better trees.”

Understanding Energy for More Efficient Agriculture

PULLMAN, Wash. – When you eat lunch, you might be thinking about work but probably just are enjoying the taste. John Peters is thinking about metabolism in the context of agriculture and energy. Peters is the new director of the Institute of Biological Chemistry (IBC) at Washington State University and a renowned biochemist who wants to know how energy is produced at a fundamental level.

WSU Grant Will Help Fight Devastating Citrus Disease

PULLMAN, Wash. – Three Washington State University researchers have received a $2.1 million grant to help save the U.S. and global citrus industry. They will develop methods of growing a citrus-destroying bacteria so that strategies to fight the disease it causes can be pursued. Huánglóngbìng, or HLB, is also called “citrus greening disease,” and it is destroying orange, grapefruit and lemon trees around the world. Scientists haven’t been able to grow and maintain cultures of the bacterium that causes the disease. “The simple answers didn’t work and we need a way to fight this,” said biochemist David Gang, a fellow in WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry.
Dr. John W. Peters
Professor and Director

Helen Miller
Administrative Manager

Teresa Beckvold
Principal Assistant

Julie Thayer
Greenhouse Manager