Sibongile Mafu

photo of Sibongile Mafu

Assistant Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology

PhD: Iowa State University
Postdoctoral Training: University of California, Davis

Research Interests

My interests are focused on exploring the biochemical diversity underlying plant natural product chemistry through elucidation of the biosynthetic components involved in the formation of specialized metabolites. This contributes to our understanding of the role of metabolites in adaptation of plants to their ecological niches and allows us to probe the underlying biochemical diversity and evolution of the enzymes involved.

Our research includes identification and biochemical functional characterization of enzymes towards pathway elucidation (with a focus on terpenes) and incorporation of protein engineering to gain a more in depth understanding into how enzymes of interest function. We work with a variety of plants and are particularly excited about a plant cell culture library that has a collection of several plant species, a great resource to more broadly study plant metabolic diversity.

Understanding the biochemical diversity underlying the vast natural plant product chemistry can be translated into useful agriculture or biotechnological applications including pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, flavors and fragrances.

Our research broadly covers:

•    Functional characterization of genes towards biosynthetic pathway elucidation
•    Enzyme diversity and evolution
•    Metabolic engineering


Mafu S, and Zerbe P., (2017) Plant diterpenoid metabolism for manufacturing the biopharmaceuticals of tomorrow:  prospects and challenges. Photochemistry Reviews. doi10.1007/s11101-017-9513-5

Mafu S, Karunanithi PS, Palazzo TA, Harrod BL, Rodriguez SM, Molhoff IN, O’Brien TE, Tong S, Fiehn O, Tantillo DJ, Bohlmann J,  Zerbe P.  (2016). Biosynthesis of the microtubule-destabilizing diterpene pseudolaric acid B from golden larch involves an unusual diterpene synthase. PNAS. 2017 114 (5): 974-979 [PNAS]

Mafu S, Fischer E, Addison JB, Riberio-Barbosana I, Zerbe P.  (2016) Substitution of two active site residues alters C9-hydroxylation in class II diterpene synthase. Chembiochem. doi:10.1002/cbic.201600419

Kumar S, Kempinski C, Zhuang X, Norris A, Mafu S, Zi J, Bell SA, Nybo SE, Kinison SE, Jiang Z, Goklany S, Linscott KB, Chen X, Jia Q, Brown SD, Bowman JL, Babbitt PC, Peters RJ, Feng Chen F, Chappell  J. (2016) Molecular Diversity of Terpene Synthases in the Liverwort Marchantia polymorpha. Plant Cell. 2016 pii tpc.00062.2016

Mafu S, Jia M, Zi J, Morrone D, Wu Y, Xu M, Hillwig ML, Peters RJ. (2016) Probing the promiscuity of ent-kaurene oxidases via combinatorial biosynthesis. PNAS. 113(9):2526-31. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1512096113  [PubMed]

Mafu S, Potter KC, Hillwig ML, Schulte S, Criswell J, Peters RJ. (2015) Efficient heterocyclisation by (di) terpene synthases. Chem. Commun. 51(70):13485-7. doi: 10.1039/c5cc05754j  [PubMed]

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 J. 83(5):783-93. doi: 10.1111/tpj.12925

Zi J, Mafu S, Peters RJ (2014) To Gibberellins and Beyond! Surveying the Evolution of (Di) terpenoid Metabolism. Annu. Rev. Plant Biol. 65:259-86. doi: 10.1146/annurev-arplant-050213-035705

Mafu S, Hillwig ML, Peters RJ. (2011). A novel labda-7, 13E-dien-15-ol producing bifunctional diterpene synthase from Selaginella moellendorffii. Chembiochem 12(13): 1984-7  [PubMed]