ZENG Zhirui
Assistant Professor


Dr. Zhirui Zeng received his PhD in Geology at Texas A&M University in 2014, and went to Stanford University for postdoctoral studies. In 2019, he joined the Southern University of Science and Technology faculty as an assistant professor in the Department of Ocean Science and Engineering. He aims to answer earth science questions by using biotechnology approaches.

Dr. Zeng is interested in revealing the biosynthesis pathway of archaeal membrane lipid GDGTs (glycerol dialkyl glycerol tetraethers). GDGTs are not just signature molecules that distinguishing archaea from bacteria and eukaryotes, but also important molecular fossils recording the sea surface temperature in the past. Dr. Zeng and his colleagues, for the first time, discovered the GDGT ring cyclase, and thus provides the molecular basis for the application of this molecular fossil as a temperature proxy. He also discovered the calditol synthase gene, that modifies the GDGT glucose head group to a calditol head group and thus enables thermoacidophilic archaea to thrive in extreme acidic environments. His major research approaches include archaeal gene editing (e.g. CRISPR), protein function characterization, lipid analysis by mass spectrometry, and bioinformatics. Dr. Zeng will continue focusing on revealing the remaining unknown steps in the GDGT biosynthesis pathway, characterizing their physiological roles, improving the use of GDGTs as environmental proxy, and developing GDGTs as novel biomaterial for pharmaceutical purpose.


Research Fields

Geomicrobiology, Molecular Biology of Archaea, Archaeal Membrane Lipid GDGTs Biosynthesis, Molecular Fossils, Microbial life in Extreme Environments



Ph.D.     Geology                Texas A&M University           2014

M.S.      Microbiology        Sun Yat-sen University           2009

B.S.       Biotechnology      Minzu University of China      2006


Professional Experience

Assistant Professor, Southern University of Science and Technology, Department of Ocean Science and Engineering. 2019 – Present

Postdoctoral Scholar, Stanford University, Department of Earth System Science, 2015 – 2019


Honors and Awards

NASA Astrobiology Program Early Career Collaboration Award, 2016

Berg-Hughes Fellowship, 2013-2014

TAMU Geology & Geophysics Department Fellowship, 2012-2013

TAMU Regents’ Graduate Fellowship, 2009-2011

Distinguished Graduate Student Award, Sun Yat-sen University, 2008



  1. Zeng Z, Liu X, Farley K, Wei J, Metcalf W, Summons R, Welander P. GDGT cyclization proteins identify the dominant archaeal sources of tetraether lipids in the ocean. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 2019, (under review)
  2. Zeng Z, Liu X, Wei J, Summons R, Welander P. Calditol-linked membrane lipids are required for acid tolerance in Sulfolobus Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 2018, 115, p12932-12937.
  3. Zeng Z, Pike M, Tice M, Kelly C, Marcantonio F, Xu G, Maulana I. Iron fertilization of primary productivity by volcanic ash in the late Cretaceous (Cenomanian) Western Interior Seaway. Geology, 2018, 10, p859-862.
  4. Zeng Z, Tice M. Electron transfer strategies regulate carbonate mineral and micropore formation. Astrobiology, 2018, 18, p28-36.
  5. Zeng Z, Tice M. Promotion and nucleation of carbonate precipitation during microbial iron reduction. Geobiology, 2014, 12, p362-371.
  6. Zeng Z, Qian L, Cao L, Tan H, Huang Y, Xue X, Shen Y, Zhou S. Virtual screening for novel quorum sensing inhibitors to eradicate biofilm formation of Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology, 2008, 79, p119-126.


Professional Services

Peer reviewer

Geology,  Chemical Geology,  Astrobiology,  PALAIOS