• Nikolau Research Group


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Welcome to our Group

Research in the Nikolau Group is focused on the comprehensive understanding of metabolism. The lab is particularly focused on the discovery and characterization of novel metabolic processes, and the associated biocatalysts, utilizing expanding genomics resources as the starting point for these endeavors.

The past decade has seen an explosion of genomics datasets, which have revolutionized the way biological systems are defined. Yet the majority of the gene sequences that are deposited at databases are ambiguously annotated relative to biochemical functionality.  These gaps in knowledge therefore offer opportunities for novel discoveries that can be used to generate innovative metabolic solutions to societally defined issues.

These research activities are providing opportunities for research-based education and training of undergraduate and graduate students, as well as post-doctoral researchers.

Dr. Nikolau is the Frances M. Craig Professor of Biochemistry at Iowa State University where he has taught and conducted research since 1988. He was awarded his Ph.D. in Biochemistry at Massey University, New Zealand, in 1982, and conducted postdoctoral research at the University of California, Davis, and the University of Utah before joining the faculty of Iowa State University. Dr. Nikolau's research interests focus on the biochemistry and molecular genetic of enzymes affect novel and complex metabolic processes.

Nikolau group research is conducted in the Molecular Biology Building and the 4th floor of the Biorenewables Research Laboratory (BRL 4th).


Biotin is a water-soluble vitamin that is biosynthesized by plants, and some bacteria and fungi.  One of its biochemical functions is as a covalently-bound cofactor on a family of enzymes that catalyze reactions in a variety of crucial metabolic processes. Examples of such enzymes are acetyl-CoA carboxylase, methylcrotonyl-CoA carboxylase, propionyl-CoA carboxylase and geranoyl-CoA carboxylase, which are required for lipogenesis, amino acid metabolism and isoprenoid metabolism.

Acetyl-CoA is a metabolite that sits at a key point connecting catabolic and anabolic metabolism, and it is also juxtaposed between central carbon metabolism and specialized metabolism. Because of the unique central metabolic position that acetyl-CoA occupies, flux through this intermediate is highly regulated by the integration of a variety of different mechanisms.

The term “specialized metabolism” encompasses metabolic processes that are asymmetrically distributed across phylogenetic space - historically this metabolism was called secondary metabolism.  In contrast to central metabolism, which is common to all life forms, specialized metabolism generates the “chemical-spice” of different life forms, and thus is responsible for the large degree of chemical diversity in the biosphere.

Metabolomics is the science of determining the metabolome of a biological sample. The metabolome is the collection of low molecular weight organic molecules associated with a biological sample, which are not direct products of genetic information (as defined by the central dogma). These organic molecules directly interact with macromolecules (usually enzymes), which themselves are products of genetic information, and these interactions may or may not lead to chemical transformations.

Simple hydrocarbons (e.g. n-alkanes and n-alkenes), that are at the chemical level identical to currently used gasoline and diesel fuels, occur discreetly in biological systems. Some algae and photosynthetic microbial systems accumulate simple hydrocarbons in large quantities as a means of storing carbon and energy.  Other organisms, such as plants and insects produce these compounds as part of the cuticle, which acts as a water barrier at the interface between the organism and the environment.

Recent News

Nikolau group celebration, May 11, 2018
May 14, 2018

The Nikolau research group held another epic potluck on May 11, this time honoring leader Basil Nikolau who begins a one-year appointment with the National Science Foundation on May 14, Kiran-Kumar Shivaiah who successfully defended his Ph.D. thesis on May 1, Sara Hazinia who passed her Ph.D. preliminary exam on May 11, and Kathy Wiederin who will retire June 30. Congratulations to all!

Stupka Symposium student presenters with Dr. Nikolau
April 9, 2018

Five Nikolau Group students presented their research at the 2018 Stupka Symposium held April 5 in the Molecular Biology Building on the ISU campus. Jena Gilbertson (senior, biochemistry) and Drew Tonsager (BS-MS, biochemistry) were two of only three students selected to make oral presentations. Katelyn Campbell (senior, genetics), Rachel Garlock (senior, biology) and Liza Alexander (PhD student in molecular, cellular and developmental biology) were among students selected to make poster presentations. Our congratulations to all presenters, along with their mentors!

March 19, 2018

Check out our latest research article, published February 28 in Nature Communications: "Two distinct domains contribute to the substrate acyl chain length selectivity of plant acyl-ACP thioesterase," authored by Fuyuan Jing, Le Zhao, Marna Yandeau-Nelson and Basil Nikolau.

March 5, 2018

Nikolau group PhD student Xinyu Fu has created an educational video explaining plant fats and oils. This is an independent project created for the ASPB (American Society of Plant Biologists) Conviron Scholars Program that aims at communicating plant science to the broader public. Great job, Xinyu - clear, concise and enlightening!

November 20, 2017

On November 17, the Nikolau research group held a Celebration Potluck honoring members Rupam Bhunia, Alexis Campbell and Libuse Brachova.