Research Fellows Directory
Professor Claire Halpin FSB
University of Dundee
My research aims to understand how plants make lignin, a major component of plant cell walls, and how to use that knowledge to ‘redesign’ lignin so that plants are improved for specific useful purposes. Plant cell walls are composed predominantly of the sugar polymers cellulose and hemicellulose, but the lignin component that I work on is unique in being made of phenolic molecules. I am trying to discover all of the genes that are responsible for producing the phenolic units and for assembling them together in the plant cell wall, as well as genes that influence other aspects of cell wall biology. In the cell wall, lignin encrusts the other sugar-based components in order to seal and waterproof the wall and make it rigid. Without lignin, our crops and trees could not stand upright,
move water from the roots up to the leaves, and defend themselves from invading pathogens. Lignin achieves this through it’s resistance to digestion and adhesive-like properties, but these same features can be undesirable in agricultural and industrial processes where, for example, lignin limits the digestibility of forage fed to livestock and makes it difficult and more expensive to isolate clean cellulose fibres for paper-making. A topical problem connected to lignin is the need to find more efficient ways to release cell wall sugars from plant biomass so that we can use them to make biofuels and other chemicals. Biofuels have lots of advantages over conventional fossil fuels, not least in reducing carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere and mitigating the impact of our modern lifestyles on global warming and climate change. My research has uncovered some of the processes, genes, and enzymes that are involved in lignin production and that could be useful for improving plant biomass, through conventional breeding or biotechnology, to make it better suited to agricultural and industrial processes, with associated environmental benefits.
Interests and expertise (Subject groups)