Wilfred van der Donk was born in Culemborg, the Netherlands and received his B.S. and M.S. from Leiden University. He moved to the USA in 1989 to pursue his Ph.D. under Kevin Brugess at Rice University. After postdoctoral work at MIT with JoAnne Stubbe as a Jane Coffin Child fellow, he joined the faculty at the University of Illinois in 1997, where he currently holds the Richard E. Heckert Chair in Chemistry. Since 2008, he is an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
The research in his laboratory focuses on using organic chemistry and molecular biology to gain a better understanding of the molecular mechanisms of enzyme catalysis. The group is also exploring the utility of enzymes in organic chemistry. Of particular interests have been enzymatic reactions in the biosynthesis of antibiotics, and radical chemistry in proteins such as cyclooxygenase and lipoxygenase. In the former area, his group achieved the first in vitro biosynthesis of lantibiotics and has reported on the utility of the lantibiotic synthetases. These enzymes are remarkable catalysts that typically cleave 10 or more chemical bonds and form a similar number of new bonds with control over regio-, chemo-, and stereoselectivity. His group also has investigated unusual enzymatic reactions involving reduced phosphorus compounds such as phosphite dehydrogenase and 2-hydroxy ethylphosphonate dioxygenase. The latter enzyme is involved in the biosynthesis of the commercial herbicide phosphinothricin. He also pioneered the use of phosphite dehydrogenase as an NADH regeneration catalyst.