- Ph. D, (2003, Sydney), M.Sc & B Sc. (NENU, China)
- Postdoctoral Fellow, ANU, 2003
- Australian Research Council (ARC) Postdoctoral Fellow, USyd, 2004 - 2006
- Research Fellow, USyd, 2007
- ARC QEII Fellow, USyd, 2008 - 2012
- Associate Professor, USyd, 2011 - present
- ARC Future Fellow, USyd, 2013 - 2016
My research interests are primarily concerned with elucidating the molecular and biochemical mechanisms of the energy-storing reactions and photo-regulatory processes in photosynthetic organisms, especially the function of red-shifted chlorophylls in oxygenic photosynthetic organisms (cyanobacteria and algae). My research "platform" lies in the broad field of biochemistry of photosynthesis, including biochemical, biophysical and molecular biological studies on isolated pigments and protein-pigment complexes. The experimental techniques that we use include comparison of genomic sequence information, gene expression analysis/meta-transcription analysis, proteomic analysis and spectroscopic analysis. My current projects also include elements of microbial ecology, microbiology/marine microbiology (mainly phototrophic organisms, cyanobacteria and algae), chromatic responses and photo-regulation.
Red-Shifted Chlorophylls, Chlorophylls d and f
The photosynthetic reactions take place within the membrane-bound pigment-protein complexes, lightharvesting systems and reaction centre systems. Chlorophylls are the essential pigments for photosynthesis. There are 5 forms of chlorophylls that have been discovered to date, chlorophyll a, b, c, d and f. Chlorophyll a plays a vital role in plant and algal photosynthesis. Chlorophylls b and c can only serve as accessory photosynthetic pigments in antenna complexes.
The red-shifted chlorophylls (Chl d and Chl f) allow the photosynthetic organisms the critical advantage of using longer wavelength photons (690-760 nm) that are not absorbed by organisms containing chlorophyll a, b, c. Chlorophyll d is the only chlorophyll known to date to replace all of the functions of chlorophyll a in oxygenic photosynthesis. The newly found chlorophyll f (absorption maximum at 706 nm in vitro), suggests that oxygenic photosynthesis can be extended even further into the infrared region, which may open up associated bioenergy applications. The function of Chl f in photosynthetic reactions is uncertain and the ecological distribution of chlorophyll f remains unknown.
The studies on photophysiological and biochemical properties of red-shifted chlorophylls will advance our understanding of its ecological and evolutionary significance. Discovery of those red-shifted chlorophyll synthases can be applied for increasing photosynthetic ability to absorb and utilize additional regions of the solar spectrum. This could lead to significant improvements in agricultural efficiency or bioenergy storage. It may also be useful for remote sensing and detection of plants that contain this pigment.
Photoregulation and pigment composition
In addition to chlorophylls, there are two types of pigments found in phototrophs, the polyene pigments known as carotenoids and open chain tetrapyrroles known as bilins. Carotenoids function as lightharvesting photopigments in photosynthesis, also have an essential function in light protection against damage from excess excitation energy or reactive oxygen species. Bilins are important pigments for lightharvesting function in phycobiliproteins and phycobilisomes and photoregulation/chromatic changes in phytochromes and related proteins. The latter functions are also performed in non-photosynthetic organisms or tissues. We are interested to understand the biochemical mechanisms, such as the types and function of phytochromes and their relationship with photosynthetic reactions, as well as changes in carotenoids and their physiological functions.
Evolutionary transition from anaerobic to aerobic metabolism
How life on Earth survived the revolutionary changes when cyanobacteria first released oxygen into the atmosphere is not well understood. The process by which the transition from the anoxic (oxygen-free) to the oxic (oxygen-rich) worlds occurred is still largely a mystery. The comparative genomic study will be performed at the molecular level with ecological interpretation. the co-evolution of oxygen use and oxygen detoxification will allow us to understand life cycles, adaptation and evolution in the biosphere. The ocean provides multi-layers of microenvironments, with changing gradients of chemicals, light and available oxygen. These environments shape the biosphere and its essential cycles.
Some cyanobacteria have the ability to perform two seemingly incompatible metabolisms stimutaneously, such as oxygen production (oxygenic photosynthesis) and a strictly anaerobic process (nitrogen fixation). The gradient of available oxygen concentration may play an important regulatory role for such metabolic reaction shifts.
Awards and honours
- Peter Goldcare Award of the Australian Society of Plant Sciences 2013
- The Robin Hill Award of International Society of Photosynthesis Research 2013
- ARC Future Fellowship 2013-2016
- Finalist in Scientific Research by Australian Museum Eureka Prize 2012
- Science Minister’s Prize for Life Scientist of Year 2011
- ARC QE II Fellowship 2008-2012
- ARC APD Fellowship 2004-2006
In the media
Sydney Morning Herald“Out of the lab, into the spotlight” Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011 in Environment, Science Section.http://www.smh.com.au/environment/out-of-the-lab-into-the-spotlight-20111012-1lkvo.html
Min Chen: Science Minister’s Prize for Life Scientist of the Year (Oct. 12 2011) http://www.scienceinpublic.com.au/prime-ministers-prize/pmlifescience11
Feature review of discovery of Chl f by Prof Bernhard Kruetler “A New Factor in Life’s Quest for Energy”in Angewandte Chemie International Edition, 50 (11): 2439-2441, Mar. 7 2011.
A cover story “A New Chlorophyll,Chemical Year in Review 2010”in Chemical and Engineering News published by the American Chemical Society. (Dec. 20 2010) http://pubs.acs.org/cen/coverstory/88/8851cover.html
2010 Science News of Year Molecules by Gimme F in Science News (Jan. 1 2011)http://www.sciencenews.org/view/feature/id/67707/title/2010_Science_News_of_the_Year_Molecules
A feature article “Power plants”by Alan Burdick in On Earth Magazine (Nov. 23 2010) http://www.onearth.org/article/power-plants
“A New Form of Chlorophyll?”in Scientific American (Aug. 19 2010) (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=new-form-chlorophyll,)
“Infrared chlorophyll could boost solar cells” in New Scientist (Aug. 28 2010 v2775 p22)(http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20727755.700-infrared-chlorophyll-could-boost-solar-cells.html
US Provisional Patent Application Number: 61/346743
Title: Gene Constructs Comprising Nucleic Acids That Modulate Chlorophyll
Biosynthesis and Uses Thereof. (2010)
Inventors: Min Chen, Robert Willows, Robert Blankenship
Applicants: The University of Sydney (Australia), Macquarie University (Australia) and Washington University in St. Louis (U.S.A)
PhD and master's project opportunities
- Biosynthetic and evolutionary pathway of red-shifted chlorophylls; Chen M; Australian Research Council (ARC)/Future Fellowships (FT).
- An automated 3D electron microscopy imaging system comprising a 3View2 and field-emission scanning electron microscope; Liu Z, Chen M, Copeland L, Crawford J, Langrish T, Li Q, Mai Y, Overall R, Weiss A, Ye L; DVC Research/Equipment Grant.
- The role of chlorophyll f in photosynthesis; Chen M, Willows R, Blankenship R; Australian Research Council (ARC)/Discovery Projects (DP).
- Molecular mechanisms of spectral extension in photosynthesis: the substitution and formation of the novel pigment chlorophyll d; Chen M, Blankenship R, Willows R, Larkum A, Blankenship R; Australian Research Council (ARC)/Discovery Projects (DP).
- Genomic and Biochemical Basis of Pigmentation in Novel Isolates of Marine Cyanobacteria; Hess W, Chen M; Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst (DAAD)/Travelling Fellowship.
- The evolutionary transition fron anaerobic to aerobic metabolism; Chen M; Australian Research Council (ARC)/Discovery Projects (DP).
- The evolutionary transition from anaerobic to aerobic metabolism; University of Sydney/Bridging Fellowship.
- Novel Chlorophylls and New Directions in Photosynthesis; Blankenship R, Chen M, Larkum A, Blankenship R; Australian Research Council (ARC)/Discovery Projects (DP).
- Relationship of antenna complexes - reaction centres in chlorophyll d containing oxy-photosynthetic cyanobacterium,Acaryochloris marina; Chen M; Journal of Cell Science (JCS)/Research Grant.
- Characteristics of chlorophyll d-binding protein complexes: in assembly of light-harvesting complexes; Chen M; Australian Research Council (ARC)/Discovery Projects (DP).