The plant Daphniphyllum macropodum is a small tree native to East Asia used globally as ornamentals due to their evergreen foliage. Despite being renowned primarily for their beauty, these plants are also expert chemists: they produce a remarkable array of complex nitrogen-containing chemicals (alkaloids), which are unlike any other known chemicals from plants, animals or microbes. These Daphniphyllum alkaloids have been shown to have anti-cancer and anti-HIV properties, and may have potential for medical use.
In this project, we aim to understand how Daphniphyllum macropodum makes its complex alkaloids. Through this knowledge we will gain access to the unique chemical machinery found in the plants; this will help us make other complex molecules in the future. We will also develop methods for producing high quantities of the alkaloids using other organisms, such as tobacco or yeast. This will allow us to obtain large enough quantities of the chemicals to determine whether they have potential as therapeutics, for example as antibiotics or chemotherapy agents. Our study specimens are trees found in the Yorkshire Arboretum, in the grounds of Castle Howard. We are also working with Dr William Unsworth and the York Structural Biology Laboratory in the Department of Chemistry.
Dr Lichman is interested in the mechanism and evolution of plant biosynthetic enzymes, and the origin of metabolic pathways.