Jens Staal team - The Mammalian Phytohormone Lab

Research Field: Specialized metabolites in health and disease

Team leader: Prof. Dr. Ir. Jens Staal

Tel: +32 9 33 13 765 - Fax: +32 9 221 76 73

Research topic

Our group focus on the role of secondary (or specialized) metabolites and regulation of inflammation-related diseases. We especially focus on a diverse set of compounds known as phytohormones (“plant hormones”) that are also made endogenously in mammals.

The best known anti-inflammatory phytohormone is Salicylic Acid (SA), which was used already by the Neanderthals as an anti-inflammatory drug. Serum levels of SA vary between individuals and part of this variation can be explained by diet, but a certain basal level (~70nM) remain also in germ-free conditions and during fasting, indicating endogenous biosynthesis in humans. The physiological role of this low basal level of SA is completely unknown.

Another stress hormone from plants is Abscisic acid (ABA), which also can be found back at low levels (~1nM) in animal serum and tissues. In vitro production of ABA from stimulated cells indicate that there is an endogenous ABA biosynthesis pathway in animals, and a failure to up-regulate serum ABA after a sugar challenge has been suggested to be a marker for type 2 diabetes. In fact, ABA treatment in mouse models indicate many beneficial effects against inflammation-related diseases such as atherosclerosis, colitis, depression, diabetes and obesity.

Auxin (IAA) is produced by tryptophan degradation after liver damage and act as a AhR ligand, which can induce liver-protective effects. Cytokinins (CKs) are adenosine-derived molecules with anti-inflammatory properties.

For all these phytohormones, very little is known about the endogenous biosynthesis and physiological roles in mammals.

Areas of expertise

  • Regulation of inflammatory gene expression
  • Cloning, design and engineering of reporter systems
  • Transgenic mouse models
  • Nutrition – microbiota – metabolism - inflammation
  • Metabolic engineering

Technology transfer potential

  • Identification of diseases that benefit from secondary metabolite supplementation
  • Potential novel markers for prognosis or disease differentiation
  • Novel sources and administration routes for secondary metabolite supplementation
  • Knowledge about regulation of immune homeostasis at an entirely different complexity level (beyond nucleotides and proteins)

Recent publications

  1. Kim SW, et al. Engineering a highly sensitive biosensor for abscisic acid in mammalian cells
    FEBS Letters, in press, 2022.
  2. Kim SW. Unraveling the functional roles of endogenous phytohormones in mammals.
  3. Kim, SW. et al. Phytohormones: Multifunctional Nutraceuticals Against Metabolic Syndrome and Comorbid Diseases.
    Biochem Pharmacol. 175. 2020.
  4. Lievens, L. et al. Abscisic acid as pathogen effector and immune regulator.
    Front Plant Sci. 8. 2017.

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