Research encompasses various aspects of plant cell wall biology. The cell wall plays a key role in the control of plant growth and morphogenesis by regulating the rates of cell expansion through changes in extensibility. Plant cell wall extensibility is under dynamic control and the molecular mechanisms underlying extension are a major research interest. Expansins are key proteins that regulate cell wall extensibility and we study these proteins at the level of biochemistry and molecular genetics. The cell wall is a complex fibre composite material composed of a range of different polysaccharides. We study the contribution of different matrix polysaccharides to cell wall extensibility and elasticity, as well as the genes and enzymes involved in their biosynthesis.
Plant biomass is one of the greatest reserves of fixed carbon on the planet, is viewed as a potential replacement for fossil fuels, and is largely composed of cell walls. We are using our knowledge of cell walls to advance the development of second generation liquid biofuels from plant biomass in three distinct areas. Firstly, we are coordinating a large international project, which aims to optimise plant cell walls for biofuel applications by making them more readily converted into fermentable sugars for alcohol production. Secondly, we have initiated a major programme for the discovery of novel enzymes for converting plant biomass into fermentable sugars. Finally, we are investigating the production of liquid biofuels from plant biomass from municipal waste.