Robert M. Hughes

Associate Professor,
Biological Chemistry

Office: SZ 564
Phone: 252-328-9730
Lab Website

  • Research Assistant Professor, Eshelman School of Pharmacy, UNC – Chapel Hill (2015-2016)
  • Postdoctoral Fellow, Eshelman School of Pharmacy, UNC-Chapel Hill (2011-2015)
  • Postdoctoral Fellow, Duke University (2007-2011)
  • Ph.D., Bio-Organic Chemistry, Department of Chemistry, UNC – Chapel Hill (2007)
  • Graduate Study in Physical Chemistry, East Carolina University (2002)
  • B.S./B.A., Washington and Lee University (1998)

Research Overview

Research in the Hughes lab focuses on the development of protein and small molecule-based reagents for the control and monitoring of biochemical pathways. One project in our lab focuses on the development of light-activated biosensors for the detection of oxidative stress (a precursor/predictor of numerous degenerative diseases) in cells. A second project is aimed at developing environmentally sensitive protein-based reagents that initiate biochemical pathways ending in cell death. Finally, we are developing library-based methods for the production of improved protein chimera via a linker optimization strategy. Other areas of interest include methods for the design and selection of improved biocatalysts.

Students performing research in our lab will have access to a wide variety of experimental techniques, including PCR, molecular cloning, protein expression and purification, western blotting, cell culture, fluorescence microscopy, and numerous biochemical assays.

Selected Publications

Ethan S. Quinn††*, Brian Sylcott*, Nathaneal T. Green††#, Joi P. Walker#, Robert M. Hughes#  3D Printed Laboratory Accessories as a Conduit for a Multidisciplinary Undergraduate Research Experience. *ECU College of Engineering and #ECU Department of Chemistry. Journal of College Science Teaching, accepted for publication.

Gagliardi PA, Dobrzyński M, Jacques MA, Dessauges C, Ender P, Blum Y, Hughes RM, Cohen AR, Pertz O. Collective ERK/Akt activity waves orchestrate epithelial homeostasis by driving apoptosis-induced survival. Developmental Cell. 2021 Jun 21;56(12):1712-1726.e6. doi: 10.1016/j.devcel.2021.05.007. Epub 2021 Jun 2. PMID: 34081908.

Bunner, W. P., Dodson, R., Hughes, R. M.**, Szatmari, E. M.** Transfection and activation of CofActor, a light AND stress gated optogenetic tool, in primary hippocampal neuron cultures. Bio-Protocol 2021 Apr 20;11(8):e3990. doi: 10.21769/BioProtoc.3990. PMID: 34124292; PMCID: PMC8160542.

Wurz, A.I.†; O’Bryant, C.T.†; Hughes, R.M.** protaTETHER: A method for the incorporation of linkers in biomacromolecules, Methods in Enzymology, Academic Press, 2021,

Patel, M.P.†; Green, N.T.††; Burch, J.K.††; Kew, K.A.; Hughes, R.M.** Screening of Biocatalysts for Synthesis of the Wieland–Miescher Ketone. Catalysts 2020, 10, 1063.

Norris, JL††; Patel, T††; Dasari, AKR; Cope, TA††; Lim, KH; Hughes, RM**. Covalent and Non-Covalent Strategies for the Immobilization of Tobacco Etch Virus (TEV) Protease on Superparamagnetic Nanoparticles. Journal of Biotechnology 2020.

Hughes, R.M.; Virag, J.A. Harnessing the Power of Eph/ephrin Biosemiotics for Theranostic Applications. Pharmaceuticals 2020, 13, 112.

Salem FB†, Bunner WP†, Prabhu V V, Kuyateh A-B†, O’Bryant CT†, Murashov AK, Szatmari EM**, Hughes RM**. CofActor: A light- and stress-gated optogenetic clustering tool to study disease-associated cytoskeletal dynamics in living cells. J Biol Chem 2020 May 18 jbc.RA119.012427. Available from:

Godwin WC††, Hoffmann GF††, Gray TJ, Hughes RM**. Imaging of Morphological and Biochemical Hallmarks of Apoptosis with Optimized Optogenetic Tools. Journal of Biological Chemistry, 2019; doi: 10.1074/jbc.RA119.009141

Hughes, R.M. “A Compendium of Chemical and Genetic Approaches to Light Regulated Gene Transcription.” Critical Reviews in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology. (2018) Jul 24:1-22. doi: 10.1080/10409238.2018.1487382.

Norris, J.L.; Hughes, R.M. “protaTETHER: A method for the incorporation of variable linker sequences in protein fusions.” (2018) FEBS OpenBio

O’Banion, C.P.; Priestman, M.L.; Hughes, R.M.; Herring, Laura; Capuzzi, Stephen; Lawrence, D.S.  (2018). Design and Profiling of a Subcellular Targeted Optogenetic cAMP-Dependent Protein Kinase. Cell Chemical Biology

Hughes RM, Marvin CM, Smith WJ, et al. “Phototriggered Secretion of Membrane Compartmentalized Bioactive Agents.”Angew Chem Int Ed Engl 2016 doi: 10.1002/anie.201609731

Taslimi A, Zoltowski B, Miranda JG, Pathak GP, Hughes RM, Tucker CL. “Optimized second-generation CRY2-CIB dimerizers and photoactivatable Cre recombinase.” Nat Chem Biol. 2016 Jun;12(6):425-30. doi:10.1038/nchembio.2063. Epub 2016 Apr 11.

Hughes RM, Freeman DJ, Lamb KN, Pollett RM, Smith WJ, Lawrence DS. Optogenetic Engineering: Light-Triggered Cell Death. Angew Chem Int Ed Engl. 2015

Rodgers ZL, Hughes RM, Doherty LM, Shell JR, Molesky BP, Brugh AM, Forbes MD, Moran AM, Lawrence DS. B(12)-mediated, long wavelength photopolymerization of hydrogels. J Am Chem Soc. 2015 Mar 11;137(9):3372-8. doi: 10.1021/jacs.5b00182.

Smith, Weston L.; Oien, Nathan P.; Hughes, Robert M.; Marvin, Christina L.; Rogers, Zachary L.; Lawrence, David S. “Cell-Mediated Assembly of Phototherapeutics.” Angew Chem Int Ed Engl. 2014 Aug 22. doi: 10.1002/anie.201406216.

Robert M. Hughes; Justin Varna; Adrianne M. C. Pittman; Junqi Song; Chandra L. Tucker. “A light-dependent, dark-promoted interaction of cryptochrome 1 and the Pr form of phytochrome B.” June 22, 2012 The Journal of Biological Chemistry, 287, 22165-22172.

Matthew J. Kennedy*; Robert M. Hughes*; Leslie A. Peteya; Joel W. Schwartz; Michael D. Ehlers; Chandra L. Tucker. “Rapid blue light induction of protein interactions in living cells” Nature Methods, 2010, 7(12):973-5.

Hughes, R. M.; Wiggins, K. R.; Khorasanizadeh, S.; Waters, M. L. “Recognition of Trimethylysine by the Chromodomain is not driven by the Hydrophobic Effect.” Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci., 2007, 104, 11184 – 11188.

Hughes, R. M.; Waters, M. L. “Arginine Methylation in a β-hairpin peptide: Implications for Arg-π interactions, ΔCp°, and the cold denatured state.” J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2006, 128, 12735-12742.

Hughes, R. M.; Waters, M. L. “Influence of N-Methylation on a Cation-π Interaction Produces a Remarkably Stable β-Hairpin Peptide.” J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2005, 127, 6518- 6519.