Professor Neil Hunter FRS

Krebs Chair in Biochemistry

Tel: 0114 222 4191


Research Precis

fig1Photosynthesis is essential for life on Earth. It starts with the collection of solar energy by the protein-bound chlorophyll and carotenoid pigments of light-harvesting (LH) complexes, which absorb and transfer this energy to reaction centres (RCs) where it is trapped, before conversion to a form of energy useful for the cell.

We exploit the relative simplicity of photosynthetic bacteria to study the biosynthesis of these pigments, and the assembly, structure and membrane organisation of LH and RC pigment-protein complexes. We use a variety of approaches - molecular genetics, protein engineering, atomic force microscopy as well as structural and spectroscopic methods - for our studies of the biogenesis, structure and function of photosynthetic membranes. In addition we are fortunate to have collaborations with many scientists in Sheffield, Europe, the USA and China.

Research Keywords

Photosynthesis, microbiology, chlorophyll, phototrophic bacteria, cyanobacteria, carotenoids, light-harvesting complexes, reaction centres, membrane proteins, biochemistry, enzymology, nanotechnology, atomic force microscopy

Research In Depth

Chlorophyll biosynthesis in bacteria and plants

Chlorophyll (Chl) biosynthesis is the most productive biochemical pathway on Earth, synthesising billions of tonnes of Chl per annum on land and in the oceans. We have cloned and sequenced many of the genes for this biosynthetic pathway, from Rhodobacter sphaeroides, the cyanobacterium Synechocystis, and from the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana and have been successful in overproducing many of them in an active form in E. coli. We study the enzymology and regulation of this pathway; in particular, we are characterising the mechanism of the first committed step of chlorophyll biosynthesis, magnesium chelatase, as well as the enzyme that catalyses the light-driven step in the pathway, protochlorophyllide reductase

Protein engineering, biochemical and structural studies of light harvesting and reaction centre complexes.

We have developed a versatile system for the mutagenesis and expression of genetically altered photosynthetic complexes, which allows us to examine protein-protein and pigment-protein interactions, such as those that establish hydrogen-bonding networks that tune the light-absorbing and energy transferring properties of bacterial light-harvesting (LH) complexes. In our biochemical work we purify the LH2, LH1 and RC-LH1 and RC-LH1-PufX complexes of Rhodobacter sphaeroides and use crystallographic and single particle methods, in collaboration with Professor Per Bullough, to study their internal structure and molecular shape. The V-shape of the RC-LH1-PufX dimer complex is a striking example of a protein that imposes curvature on a cell membrane, which optimises light absorption.

fig2Figure 2: The V-shaped RC-LH1-PufX core dimer. A, showing positions of LH1 transmembrane polypeptides; B, Surface views of the 3-D reconstruction of the complex viewed from different angles; C, model of a dimer-only membrane, showing its tubular shape; D, model demonstrating that membranes comprising a mixture of dimers and LH2 complexes are spherical.

Assembly and organisation of photosynthetic membranes

Photosynthetic organisms increase the surface area for light absorption and photochemistry by elaborating internal membranes into lamellar, tubular or spherical structures. Membrane development establishes the architectures that harvest, transduce and store solar energy. We are using a combination of atomic force microscopy and molecular genetics to study the spatial organisation of the bacterial photosynthetic apparatus, and the strategies employed for efficient harvesting and trapping of solar energy by photosynthetic bacteria.


fig3Figure 3: Left, cells of a photosynthetic bacterium. Middle, electron micrograph of a section through a cell of Rhodobacter sphaeroides. Right, atomic force microscopy of a photosynthetic membrane, showing individual photosynthetic complexes; single LH2 antenna complexes and RC-LH1-PufX dimers can be resolved.

Bionanotechnology of light harvesting complexes.

Atomic-level structural models of whole membrane assemblies have now been constructed by Klaus Schulten and Melih Sener at the Beckman Institute, Illinois, USA, using a combination of crystallographic, AFM and electron microscopy data allied to computational modeling. Such models are starting to address the collective behaviour of whole membrane assemblies, to make predictions of the energy transfer and trapping behaviour of large-scale arrays, and to identify desirable design motifs for artificial photosynthetic systems. New surface chemistries and nanopatterning methods are being developed in collaboration with Professor Graham Leggett (Sheffield) to facilitate the construction of innovative architectures for coupled energy transfer and trapping. Nanometre-scale patterns of photosynthetic complexes have been fabricated on self-assembled monolayers deposited on either gold or glass using several lithographic methods. Such artificial light-harvesting arrays will advance our understanding of natural energy-converting systems, and could guide the design and production of proof-of-principle devices for biomimetic systems to capture, convert and store solar energy.


Figure 4: Left, atomic-level structural model of a complete photosynthetic membrane showing LH2 complexes (green) and RC-LH1-PufX dimers (red/blue). Right, diagram showing nanopatterning of LH2 complexes on a gold surface to form a new, artificial energy transfer array.


Career History

Career History

  • 2008 - present: Krebs Chair in Biochemistry, MBB, University of Sheffield
  • 1993 - 2008: Professor, MBB, University of Sheffield
  • 1990 - 1993: Reader, MBB, University of Sheffield
  • 1988 - 1990: Senior Lecturer, Dept of Mol. Biology and Biotechnology (MBB), University of Sheffield
  • 1986: Visiting Faculty Fellow, Department of Biochemistry, Rutgers University, N.J., U.S.A.
  • 1986: Visiting EMBO Fellow, Department of Biophysics, Leiden University, The Netherlands.
  • 1984 - 1988: Lecturer, Department of Pure and Applied Biology, Imperial College, London.
  • 1983 - 1984: Postdoctoral Research Assistant, Department of Microbiology, Bristol University.
  • 1981 - 1982: SERC Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Biochemistry, Bristol University.
  • 1979 - 1980: Research Assistant Professor, Dept. of Biochemistry, Rutgers University, N.J., USA.
  • 1978 - 1979: Busch Postdoctoral Fellow, Dept of Microbiology, Rutgers University, N.J., U.S.A.

Honours and Distinctions

  • 2018: Biochemical Society Keilin Memorial Lecture
  • 2015: Delivered the Joel Mandelstam Lecture, Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford
  • 2014: Delivered the Inspiring Wisdom Distinguished Lecture, Shanghai JiaoTong University.
  • 2013 - 18: European Research Council Advanced Award
  • 2013 - 16: Honorary Professor, Shanghai JiaoTong University.
  • 2013: Delivered the 21st Masters Distinguished Lecture, Shanghai JiaoTong University
  • 2012: Chinese Academy of Sciences: Visiting Professorship for Senior International Scientists
  • 2012: Honorary Professor, Qinqdao Institute of Bioenergy and Bioprocess Technology
  • 2009: Elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society
  • 2007: Delivered The Neuberger Lecture, Novartis Foundation, London
  • 2003: Delivered The Drummond Lecture, Queen Mary College, London
  • 1996: D.Sc, Bristol University
  • 1986: Visiting EMBO Fellowship, Dept Biophysics, Leiden University, The Netherlands
  • 1980 - 82: SRC Postdoctoral Fellowship, Department of Biochemistry, Bristol University
  • 1978 - 80: Charles and Joanna Busch Postdoctoral Fellowship, Rutgers University, NJ, USA


Journal articles


Conference proceedings papers

  • Kumar S, Mullin N, Cartron ML, Leggett GJ, Foster SJ, Hunter CN & Hobbs JK (2017) High-resolution Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM) imaging of native biological membrane systems. EUROPEAN BIOPHYSICS JOURNAL WITH BIOPHYSICS LETTERS, Vol. 46 (pp S368-S368) RIS download Bibtex download
  • Adams PG, Vasilev C, Hunter CN & Johnson MP (2017) Light-Harvesting Complex II in Controlled Architectures: Visualizing Changes in Fluorescence Lifetimes. Biophysical Journal, Vol. 112(3) (pp 441a-441a) RIS download Bibtex download
  • Adams PG, Vasilev C, Collins AM, Montaño GA, Hunter CN & Johnson MP (2016) Redesigning Photosynthetic Membranes: Development of Bio-Inspired Photonic Nanomaterials. Biophysical Journal, Vol. 110(3) (pp 19a-19a) RIS download Bibtex download
  • Leggett GJ, Alswieleh A, Cheng N, Canton I, Ustbas B, Xue X, Ladmiral V, Xia S, Ducker RE, El Zubir O , Cartron ML et al (2014) Synthesis and nanometer-scale patterning of stimulus-responsive, biofouling-resistant zwitterionic poly(amino acid methacrylate) brushes. ABSTRACTS OF PAPERS OF THE AMERICAN CHEMICAL SOCIETY, Vol. 248 RIS download Bibtex download
  • Ducker RE, El Zubir O, Wang L, Cartron ML, Mullin N, Cadby A, Hobbs J, Hunter CN & Leggett GJ (2014) Nanoscale positioning of multiple proteins by scanning near-field photolithography. ABSTRACTS OF PAPERS OF THE AMERICAN CHEMICAL SOCIETY, Vol. 248 RIS download Bibtex download
  • Harris MA, Springer JW, Parkes-Loach PS, Reddy KR, Krayer M, Jiao J, Niedzwiedzki DM, Pavan P, Martin E, Olsen JD , Hunter CN et al (2013) Biohybrid antenna complexes with native peptide analogs and tunable synthetic chromophores. ABSTRACTS OF PAPERS OF THE AMERICAN CHEMICAL SOCIETY, Vol. 245 RIS download Bibtex download
  • Kodali G, Farid TA, Solomon LA, Lichtenstein BR, Anderson JLR, Mass OA, Esipova TV, Patole S, Sheehan MM, Ennist NM , Fry BA et al (2012) Single designed protein platform with multiple functionalities: Oxidoreductase, oxygen transport, light-harvesting, and light activated electron transfer. ABSTRACTS OF PAPERS OF THE AMERICAN CHEMICAL SOCIETY, Vol. 244 RIS download Bibtex download
  • Magis JG, Frese RN, Olsen JD, Hunter CN & Aartsma TJ (2007) Enhanced stability of photosynthetic energy transfer proteins on gold surfaces.. BIOPHYSICAL JOURNAL (pp 507A-507A) RIS download Bibtex download
  • Ratsep M, Hunter CN, Olsen JD & Freiberg A (2005) Band structure and local dynamics of excitons in bacterial light-harvesting complexes revealed by spectrally selective spectroscopy. PHOTOSYNTHESIS RESEARCH, Vol. 86(1-2) (pp 37-48) RIS download Bibtex download
  • Bullough PA, Jamieson SJ, Walz T, Hunter CN, Bowers CM, Karrasch S, Ghosh R, Henderson R & Subramaniam S (1999) Energy production in biological systems probed by electron crystallography. ELECTRON MICROSCOPY AND ANALYSIS 1999(161) (pp 127-132) RIS download Bibtex download
  • Pullertis T, Chachisvilis M, Fedchenia II, Jones MR, Hunter CN, Larsson S & Sundstrom V (1995) Coherent nuclear motion and exciton state dynamics in photosynthetic light-harvesting pigment proteins. 5th International Conference on Laser Applications in Life Sciences RIS download Bibtex download
  • Pullerits T, Chachisvilis M, Jones MR, Hunter CN & Sundstrom V (1994) Coherent nuclear motions and exciton state dynamics in photosynthetic light-harvesting pigments. European Quantum Electronics Conference - Technical Digest (pp 96-97) RIS download Bibtex download
  • GORCHEIN A, GIBSON LCD & HUNTER CN (1993) Gene expression and control of enzymes for synthesis of magnesium protoporphyrin monomethyl ester in Rhodobacter sphaeroides.. Biochemical Society Transactions, Vol. 21(2) (pp 201S-201S) RIS download Bibtex download