Stephen B.H. Kent Professor

Born Wellington, New Zealand 1945.
Victoria University, B.Sc., 1968.
Massey University, M.Sc., 1970.
University of California, Berkeley, Ph.D., 1975.
The Rockefeller University, Research Associate 1974-1977, Assistant Professor 1977-1981.
The California Institute of Technology, Senior Research Associate 1983-1989.
Bond University, Professor 1989-1990.
The Scripps Research Institute, Member & Professor, 1991-1996.
Gryphon Sciences, Chief Scientist, 1997-2000.
The University of Chicago, Professor, 2001-.
Director, Institute for Biophysical Dynamics, 2003-2009.
Joint appointment with the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology.


2013 Leach Medal, Lorne Conference on Protein Structure & Function
2011 Bader Award in Bioorganic Chemistry, American Chemical Society.
2010 Akabori Medal, Japanese Peptide Society.
2010 Rudinger Award, European Peptide Society.
2009 R. Bruce Merrifield Award, American Peptide Society.
2008 Fellow, Royal Society of Chemistry.
2006 Honorary Fellow, Royal Society of New Zealand.
2004 Vincent duVigneaud Award, American Peptide Society.
2002 E.T. Kaiser Jr. Award for Innovation in Protein Science, The Protein Society.
2000 Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science.
1994 Hirschmann Award in Peptide Chemistry, American Chemical Society.
1968 Senior Scholar, Victoria University.

OFFICE: 929 E. 57th St., GCIS W 204, Chicago, IL 60637

PHONE: 773 702 4912



Biophysics Homepage:


The Kent research group is devoted to inventing chemistries and applying them to reveal the molecular basis of protein function. To that end, we develop novel methods for the total synthesis of proteins that enable us to apply advanced physical methods in unprecedented ways to understand the chemical origins of protein structure and function. We then demonstrate that knowledge by the design and construction of protein molecules with novel properties.


Chemical Protein Synthesis:

The total synthesis of natural products is arguably the most important intellectual endeavor in the area of synthetic organic chemistry - it drives methodology forward and in the process generates new molecular entities. Proteins are the most abundant, exciting, and challenging class of natural products. Proteins are the molecular machines of the living world, performing nearly all of the functions in the cell and playing vital roles in human biology and medicine. With the success of the genome sequencing projects, proteins are being discovered at an unprecedented rate – a single recent publication described several million novel protein molecules, known only as open reading frame data encoded in the genomic DNA. In addition, it has been estimated that there are more than one million venom-derived proteins, each of which has potent and specific biological activities.

The robust synthesis of protein molecules was one of the ‘grand challenges’ of organic chemistry in the twentieth century. Our laboratory invented the chemical ligation methods that met this challenge, and that have enabled the practical total synthesis of proteins. Chemical protein synthesis is generally applicable to the efficient preparation of polypeptides containing 300 or more amino acids. Total synthesis enables the versatile incorporation of non-coded amino acids into proteins, and the modification and labeling of protein molecules, without restriction as to the sites, numbers, and kinds of chemical moieties being introduced.

We prepare the long polypeptide chains of protein molecules by the chemoselective reaction of unprotected peptide segments containing unique, mutually reactive functional groups (‘chemical ligation’). The most powerful of these ligation chemistries is thioester-mediated, amide-forming ligation, termed ‘native chemical ligation’. The resulting polypeptide chains are then folded with great efficiency to give high purity synthetic proteins. The covalent structure of the molecule is confirmed by mass spectrometry and the three dimensional folded structure of the synthetic protein is determined by high resolution X-ray crystallography.

Recently, we introduced ‘kinetically controlled ligation’, a novel and highly sophisticated chemistry for the fully convergent synthesis of large protein molecules. Currently we are exploring novel insertion reactions for the creation of molecular diversity in preformed molecular scaffolds, and the use of polymer-supported ligation chemistries for the synthesis of proteins.

Chemistry of Enzyme Catalysis:

We take full advantage of the flexibility provided by total protein synthesis to study the physical organic chemistry of how enzyme molecules work. Backbone engineering of the amide bonds in the polypeptide chain has been used to delete critical H-bonding interactions and to evaluate the effects on enzyme function. 13C & 15N NMR probe nuclei have been introduced at unique single atom sites to elucidate critical aspects of the chemical basis of enzyme catalysis. Single molecule fluorescence spectroscopy is being used to probe the functional properties of uniquely chemical analogues of the enzyme molecule.

Mirror Image Protein Molecules:

The chemical synthesis approach enables us to make enantiomeric ‘D-protein’ molecules not found in nature. We have pioneered the use of racemic protein crystallography to determine the Xray structures of proteins that will otherwise not crystallize, and to obtain protein electron density maps of unprecedented accuracy.


High-resolution X-ray structure of a heterochiral protein complex with structure weight 73201.8 Da prepared by total chemical synthesis [PDBID: 4GLS/4GLN]


In collaboration with Sachdev Sidhu (Toronto) we are also prototyping ‘mirror image drug discovery’, the use of mirror image protein targets to identify novel lead compounds from phage displayed protein libraries. Synthesis of the enantiomer of the identified protein binders gives unique molecules, that could not have been discovered using the natural target, with the specificity and potency of antibodies and effective against the protein found in nature. The resulting D-protein therapeutic candidates are small enough to be made by existing chemical methods of production.

Selected References:

1. A functional role of Rv1738 in Mycobacterium tuberculosis persistence suggested by racemic protein crystallography. Richard D. Bunker, Kalyaneswar Mandal, Ghader Bashiri, Jessica J. Chaston, Brad Pentelute, J. Shaun Lott, Stephen B. H. Kent*, Edward N. Baker*, Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 112, 4310-5 (2015).

2. Total chemical syntheses and biological activities of glycosylated and non-glycosylated forms of the chemokines CCL1 and Ser-CCL1. Ryo Okamoto, Kalyaneswar Mandal, Morris Ling, Andrew Luster, Yasuhiro Kajihara, Stephen B. H. Kent, Angewandte Chem Int Ed, 53, 5188-93 (2014).

3. (Quasi-)racemic X-ray structures of glycosylated and non-glycosylated forms of the chemokine Ser-CCL1 prepared by total chemical synthesis. Ryo Okamoto, Kalyaneswar Mandal, Michael R. Sawaya, Yasuhiro Kajihara, Todd O. Yeates Stephen B. H. Kent, Angewandte Chem Int Ed, 53, 5194-8 (2014).

4. Bringing the science of proteins into the realm of organic chemistry: total chemical synthesis of SEP (synthetic erythropoiesis protein). Stephen B.H. Kent, Angew. Chem. Int. Ed., 52, 11988–11996 (2013).

5. Rapid formal hydrolysis of peptide-αthioesters. Zachary P. Gates, Jules Stephan, Dong Jun Lee, Stephen B.H. Kent, Chem. Commun., 49, 786-788 (2013).

6. Convergent chemical synthesis of ester insulin: determination of the high resolution X-ray structure by racemic protein crystallography. Michal Avital-Shmilovici, Kalyaneswar Mandal, Zachary P. Gates, Nelson Phillips, Michael A. Weiss, Stephen B.H. Kent, J. Am. Chem. Soc., 135, 3173–3185 (2013).

7. Racemic protein crystallography. Todd O. Yeates, Stephen B.H. Kent, Ann. Review Biophysics, 41, 41–61 (2012).

8. Convergent chemical synthesis of [Lys24,38,83]human erythropoietin. Suhuai Liu, Brad L. Pentelute, Stephen B. H. Kent, Angewandte Chem, 51, 993-999 (2012).

9. Design, total chemical synthesis, and X-ray structure of a protein having a novel polypeptide chain topology. Kalyaneswar Mandal, Brad L. Pentelute, Duhee Bang, Zachary P. Gates, Vladimir Yu. Torbeev, Stephen B. H. Kent, Angewandte Chem Int Ed, 51, 1481-1486 (2012).

10. Chemical synthesis and X-ray structure of a heterochiral {D-protein antagonist plus VEGF-A} protein complex by racemic crystallography. Kalyaneswar Mandal, Maruti Uppalapati, Dana Ault-Riché, John Kenney, Joshua Lowitz, Sachdev Sidhu*, Stephen B.H. Kent*, Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 109, 14779-14784 (2012).