Departmental WebPage

Dr. Lei Zhu

Dr. Lei Zhu

Associate Professor

Ph.D. New York University (2003)

Contact Information
Email:lzhu [at]
Location Information
Office:716 DLC
Lab:755 DLC
Chemistry Research
Research Website
5 Graduate; 1 Postdocs

Research Interest

The Zhu group is interested in solving fundamental problems in chemistry and developing new technologies using the tools in supramolecular chemistry - the chemistry mediated by rapidly equilibrating reactions. Metal coordination is one example of "rapidly equilibrating reactions" that we have invested much effort in studying. The acquired fundamental knowledge from out work aids the progress in other areas, including the development of fluorescent sensing technologies and new catalytic processes. Three current research topics are briefly described in the following sections. More details are available at the Zhu Group website.

(1) Developing Fluorescent Indicators for Imaging Biological Zinc(II) Ions
Our group has developed several new classes of fluorescent compounds that undergo zinc(II) ion-mediated fluorescence changes. We have established fluorescent heteroditopic ligand platforms whose fluorescence respond to the presence of zinc(II) ions over large concentration ranges (see below for one example). Built upon the heteroditopic design, we are creating fluorescent indicators targeting zinc(II) ion in biological systems that has a uniquely broad physiological concentration range.

Zhu Research 1Zhu Research 2

(2) Photophysical Investigations of Interesting Fluorescent Molecules

Zhu Research 3

We are intrigued by how environmental factors, such as solvent polarity, viscosity, hydrogen bonding, etc., may affect the photophysical processes of fluorescent molecules that emit visible light. The solvent effect of a fluorescent molecule synthesized in our group is shown in the above figure. We carry out thorough steady-state and time-resolved spectroscopic investigations to formulate models that account for the excited state behaviors of various fluorescent molecules. The uncovered photophysical principles direct our efforts in developing fluorescent indicators, white-light emitting fluorophores, and other optically based materials.

(3) Developing Copper-Mediated Coupling Reactions Based on Mechanistic Hypotheses

Zhu Research 4

Our interest in developing and understanding the mechanistic aspects of copper-mediated coupling reactions arose from our discovery that copper(II) acetate and chelating azide possess unique reactivities in copper(II)-mediated azide-alkyne "click" cycloaddition reactions (see the mechanistic model above). The coordination between a chelating azide, such as 2-picolylazide, to copper(II) elevates the electrophilicity of the azido group, hence accelerating the reaction. Copper(II) acetate provides a dinuclear scaffold that efficiently mediates both the inducting alkyne oxidative homocoupling reaction and the azide-alkyne cycloaddition. We are undertaking the mechanistic investigations of other copper-mediated coupling reactions that might share mechanistic features with the copper(II) acetate-mediated azide-alkyne cycloaddition.


Kuang, G.-C.; Allen, J. R.; Baird, M. A.; Nguyen, B. T.; Zhang, L.; Morgan, T. J. Jr.; Levenson, C. W.; Davidson, M. W.; Zhu, L. Balance between Fluorescence Enhancement and Association Affinity in Fluorescent Heteroditopic Indicators for Imaging Zinc Ion in Living Cells. Inorg. Chem. 2011, 50, 10493-10504
Sreenath, K.; Allen, J. R.; Davidson, M. W.; Zhu, L. A FRET-Based Indicator for Imaging Mitochondrial Zinc Ions. Chem. Commun. 2011, 47, 11730-11732
Kuang, G.-C.; Guha, P. M.; Brotherton, W. S.; Simmons, J. T.; Stankee, L. A.; Nguyen, B. T.; Clark, R. J.; Zhu, L. Experimental Investigation on the Mechanism of Chelation-Assisted, Copper(II) Acetate-Accelerated Azide-Alkyne Cycloaddition. J. Am. Chem. Soc 2011, 133, 13984-14001
Michaels, H. A.; Murphy, C. S.; Clark, R. J.; Davidson, M. W.; Zhu, L. 2-Anthryltriazolyl-Containing Multidentate Ligands: Zinc-Coordination Mediated Photophysical Processes and Potential in Live-Cell Imaging Applications. Inorg. Chem. 2010, 49, 4278-4287
Brotherton, W. S.; Michaels, H. A.; Simmons, J. T.; Clark, R. J.; Dalal, N. S., Zhu, L. Apparent Copper(II)-Accelerated Azide-Alkyne Cycloaddition. Org. Lett. 2009, 11, 4954-4957