Assistant Professor of Chemistry



Office: HAC416

Office: HAC 416
Lab: HAC 417 

Spring 2017: Tuesdays 9 - 10 AM, Wednesdays 12 - 1 PM, Thursdays 3:30 - 4:30 PM, or by appointment


A.B. in Chemistry and Mathematics, Vassar College. PIs: Prof. Miriam Rossi and Prof. Joseph Tanski

PhD. in Biological Chemistry, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. PIs: Prof. Catherine L. Drennan and Prof. Collin M. Stultz.

Postdoctoral Research Assistant, University of California, Berkeley and The Scripps Research Institute. PI: Prof. Michael A. Marletta. 


Work in my lab uses a variety of biochemical techniques to understand protein function and X-ray crystallography to analyze protein structure. In general, I am interested in how cells sense and respond to their environment.


Exploring Protein Structural Impacts of Unnatural Amino Acids 

The incorporation of unnatural amino acids (UAAs) into proteins to probe protein structure, function, and kinetics has become rather commonplace. While it is generally accepted that these amino acid substitutions do not cause significant disruptions to protein structure, relatively few structures with unnatural amino acids have been published. In collaboration with Prof. Scott Brewer's lab at F&M, we are using the green fluorescent protein (GFP) as a model system to obtain X-ray crystal structures of GFP with the vibrational reporter UAAs 4-cyano-L-phenylalanine or 4-azidomethyl-L-phenylalanine incorporated at a variety of sites in the protein. With these structures, we hope to provide a set of examples illustrating that the thoughtful incorporation of unnatural amino acids does not significantly effect protein structure, supporting their use as spectroscopic probes for studying protein structure and dynamics.


Dehalococcoides mccartyi Sensing of Halogenated Pollutants

One project in my lab is examining the mechanism by which a bacterium involved in the breakdown of the carcinogenic groundwater pollutants perchloroethene (PCE) and trichloroethene (TCE) sense these small molecules in the environment and turn on the appropriate dehalogenation machinery. We are working to identify the proteins involved in sensing PCE or TCE in the environment and relaying this signal to the cell. We will then characterize the signaling and DNA binding properties of these proteins and use X-ray crystallography to help illuminate the molecular details of how D. mccartyi can differentiate between the two very similar compounds – PCE and TCE – which vary only in a single chlorine atom.

Grants & Awards

NIH R15 Academic Research Enhancement Award Grant entitled: "Monitoring and Tuning a Gas-Binding Heme Protein with Unnatural Amino Acids." 2016 - 2019

Research Corporation Cottrell College Science Award for our project entitled: "Sensing of Halogenated Pollutants by Dehalococcoides mccartyi."  2014 - 2016

NIH Ruth L. Kirschstein NRSA Postdoctoral Fellowship (F32) (declined)

Chair of 2011 Bioinorganic Chemistry Gordon Graduate Research Seminar, Ventura, CA

Sigma Xi, Vassar College Chapter

Chemistry Department Award to Graduating Senior, Vassar College

ACS College Recognition Award, Vassar College


F&M Undergraduate co-authors are in bold and corresponding authors are indicated with an asterisk.

Hespen, C.W.; Bruegger, J.J.; Phillips-Piro, C. M.*; Marletta, M. A. Structural and Functional Evidence Indicates Selective Oxygen Signaling in Caldanaerobacter subterraneus H NOX. ACS Chemical Biology, 2016, DOI: 10.1021/acschembio.6boo431.

Dippel, A.B.; Olenginski, G.M.; Maurici, N.; Liskov, M. T.; Brewer, S. H.*; and Phillips-Piro, C.M.* Probing the effectiveness of spectroscopic reporter unnatural amino acids: a structual study. Acta Cryst. D. 2016, D72, 121-130.

Tookmanian, E.M.; Phillips-Piro, C.M.*; Fenlon, E.E.*; and Brewer, S.H.* Azidoethoxyphenylalanine as a Vibrational Reporter and Click Chemistry Partner in Proteins. Chemistry–A European Journal. 2015, 21, 19096-19103.

Weinert, E.E.; Phillips-Piro, C. M.; Marletta, M. A. Porphyrin pi-Stacking in a Heme Protein Scaffold Tunes Gas Ligand Affinity. J. Inorg. Biochem. 2013127, 7-12.     

Winter, M. B.; Klemm, P. J.; Phillips-Piro, C. M.; Raymond, K. N.; Marletta, M. A. Porphyrin Substituted H-NOX Proteins as High Relaxivity MRI Contrast Agents. Inorg. Chem. 2013 52 (5), 2277-2279.

Weinert, E. E.; Phillips-Piro, C. M.; Tran, R.; Mathies, R. A.; Marletta, M. A. Controlling Conformational Flexibility of an O2-Binding H-NOX Domain. Biochemistry 2011, 50, 6832-6840.

Phillips, C. M.; Stultz, C. M.; Drennan, C. L. Search for the nik Operon: How a Ligand-Responsive Transcription Factor Hunts for its DNA Binding Site. Biochemistry 2010, 49, 7757-7763.

Phillips, C. M.; Schreiter, E. R.; Stultz, C. M.; Drennan, C. L. Structural Basis of Low Affinity Nickel-Responsive Transcription Factor NikR from Escherichia coli. Biochemistry 2010, 49, 7830-7838.

Phillips, C. M.; Nerenberg, P. S.; Drennan, C. L.; Stultz, C. M. The Physical Basis for Metal Selectivity in Escherichia coli NikR. Journal of the American Chemical Society 2009, 131, 10220-10228.

Phillips, C. M.; Drennan, C. L. Nickel Regulatory Transcription Factor, NikR. Handbook of Metalloproteins; Messerschmidt, A., Ed.; John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. 2008.

Bohon, J.; Jennings, L. D.; Phillips, C. M.; Licht, S.; Chance, M. R. The Conformation of Functional Domains in the ClpA Hexamer : A Synchrotron Footprinting Study. Structure 2008, 16, 1157-1165.

Phillips, C. M.; Schreiter, E. R.; Guo, Y.; Wang, S. C.; Zamble, D. B.; Drennan, C. L. Structural Basis of the Metal Specificity for Nickel Regulatory Protein NikR. Biochemistry 2008, 47 (7), 1938-1946.

Caruso, F.; Pettinari, C.; Marchetti, F.; Natanti, P.; Phillips, C.; Tanski, J.; Rossi, M. Synthesis, Molecular Structure (X-ray and DFT), and Solution Behavior of Titanium 4-Acyl-5-pyrazolonates. Correlations with Related Antitumor b-Diketonato Derivatives. Inorganic Chemistry 2007, 46, 7553-7560.

Pettinari, C.; Caruso, F.; Zaffaroni, N.; Villa, R.; Marchetti, F.; Pettinari, R.; Phillips, C.; Tanski, J.; Rossi, M. Synthesis, Spectroscopy (IR, multinuclear NMR, ESI-MS), Diffraction, Density Functional Study and in vitro Antiproliferative Activity of Pyrazole-beta-diketone Dihalotin(IV) Compounds on 5 Melanoma Cell Lines. Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry 2006, 100, 58-69.

Pettinari, C.; Marchetti, F.; Pettinari, R.; Cingolani, A.; Rivarola, E.; Phillips, C.; Tanski, J.; Rossi, M.; Caruso, F. Tin(II) and Lead(II) 4-Acyl-5-pyrazolonates: Synthesis, Spectroscopy (IR, 1H, 13C, and 119Sn NMR, 119Sn Mossbauer and ESI-MS) and X-ray Structural Characterization. European Journal of Inorganic Chemistry 2004, 17, 3484-3497.

Student Collaborations

2020 - Darcy Harris, Nicolette Runko

2018 - Trexler Hirn, Maggie Luo

2017 - Caroline Kearney, Juliana Piacentini, Nicole Savidge

2016 - Nicole Maurici, Daniyal Tariq, Jordan Alter, Carolina Giraldo

2015 - Gregory Olenginski, Lukasz Olenginski, Elise Tookmanian

2014 - Andrew Dippel, Austin Zimmet

2013 - Brittany Sembler, Melanie Liskov

Course Information

Spring 2015

CHM112 : General Chemistry II Lecture & Lab

Fall 2014

CHM351 : Introductory Biochemistry Lecture & Lab

Spring 2014

CHM112 : General Chemistry II Lecture & Lab

Fall 2013

CHM371 : Introductory Biochemistry Lecture & Lab

CHM111: General Chemistry I Lecture & Lab

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