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Research interests

Our laboratory focuses on plant cell walls for two main reasons. The diversity of plant forms we see around us is determined by differential growth that is determined by the size and shape it cell. In turn, the size and shape of these cells is determined by the physical properties of the cell wall. As a consequence, cell walls are fundamental to all aspects of plant development. Secondly, the effects of man-made climate change are becoming increasingly obvious. Decreasing our reliance on fossil fuels is dependent upon us replacing many of our existing fuels, chemicals and materials with alternatives with neutral or even negative CO2 emissions. Plants make up more than 80% of all biomass on the planet and most of this material is in the form of plant cell walls. The latest estimates suggest there are more than 3 trillion trees on earth and the photosynthesis required for each kilogram of dry wood removes 1.65-1.8kg of CO2 from the atmosphere. By altering the composition and properties of the plant cell wall, we believe it is possible to generate plants that are much better suited to be used either as a source for generating novel biomaterials, or as a rich source of sugars to generate biofuels or other chemicals.

Cellulose is the most abundant component of plant cell walls and it’s remarkable structural properties play a central role in determining the physical properties of the plant cell wall. It also offers a rich source of glucose that has the potential to be made into a wide variety of different chemicals.



Simon Turner currently holds the George Harrison Professor of Botany at the University of Manchester. He has held this position since 2004 having joined the University as a lecturer in 1995. This followed his work as a postdoctoral worker in the lab of Professor Chris Somerville at the Carnegie Institute at Stanford University. During this period he identified the first irx mutants that allowed him to identify the genes required for cellulose synthesis in the plant secondary cell wall that started his research into cellulose synthesis. Cellulose synthesis continues to be one of his main interests particularly the relationship between the enzyme complex that synthesises cellulose and relationship between this complex and the microfibrils it produces. Other research interests include the regulation of plant vascular development and how it can be manipulated to increase plant growth. He chairs the University’s biological safety committee.

Research interests

 Unlocking the potential of cellulose

Cellulose is the most abundant biopolymer on the planet and is increasingly recognised as having the potential to be a renewable source of feedstock for the production of biofuel, chemicals and materials. Despite the importance of cellulose in the regulation of plant growth and in shaping the world around us many basic questions about how cellulose is synthesised remain. Cellulose synthesis is unique in that a very large enzyme complex moves through the plasma membrane synthesising the many chains of cellulose that make up the cellulose microfibril, the basic unit of cellulose found in plants.  We are currently combining genetics, cell biology and biochemistry to understand the composition and organization of this large complex with the aim of understanding how this complex determines both the structure and orientation of the microfibril that it produces. Genetics has allowed us to identify three related, but distinct, members of a family of proteins known as CESA proteins that catalyse cellulose synthesis in the secondary cell wall (Kumar et al. 2015, Kumar et al. 2016).

We recently demonstrated that the cellulose synthase complex is heavily modified by the addition of many fatty acid (acyl) groups to cysteine residues within the CESA complex. This work was published recently in Science (Kumar et al. 2016). This explains how the complex remains locked within the plasma membrane and has important implication for the properties of the complex and its partitioning in the plasma membrane. We are currently looking at how other proteins involved in directing cellulose synthesis are modified and how this affects partitioning within the plasma membrane. In order to facilitate this work and to move the field forward we have recently generated comprehensive atlas of Arabidopsis proteins modified by S-acylation from 6 different tissues in order to facilitate the study of this important but elusive modification. The analysis suggest that more than 10% and up to 20% of Arabidopsis proteins may be modified in this way and that S-acylation plays an important role in many metabolic and signalling pathways (Kumar et al. 2020).

Our aims it to increase cellulose synthesis, modify cellulose microfibril structure that will allow us to exploit it more easily and to engineer plants to produce complex novel types of cellulose.

Understanding the microtubule orientation and its role in determining plant growth

Cellulose orientation is essential in determining plant cell shape and the orientation of cellulose is determined by the organization of the cortical microtubules that sit just below the plasma membrane. Microtubules in expanding cells all show similar orientation and this is essential for  proper cell shape. We have demonstrated a role for the microtubule severing protein katanin at this process. In plants katanin appears to sever at sites where microtubules cross one another and so removes unaligned microtubules. This process is regulated by the microtubule binding protein SPR2 by a unique mechanism that involved big changes in SPR2 mobility (Wightman et al. 2013). More recently we have identified a class of short highly dynamic microtubules that result from microtubule severing and appear to be important in helping microtubule alignment (Chomicki et al. 2016). We have recently found that modification of microtubules and associated proteins (MAPS) are also modified by S-acylation (Kumar et al. 2020). Currently we are looking into how this may affect the organization of the cytoskeleton and relationship between the cytoskeleton and cellulose synthesis.

Manipulating plant vascular development to increase productivity

We have identified a novel pathway involving a receptor kinase (PXY) that is involved in regulating the orientation of cell divisions in the procambium. The ligand for PXY as a short peptide encoded by the CLE41 gene and we have demonstrated how CLE41 expression must be specifically localised in phloem cells in order for it to be perceived by PXY and used to generate the spatial information essential for regulating the proper orientation of cell division (Etchells and Turner, 2010). Using transcriptional profiling, we have demonstrated that a pxy compensatory mechanism exists and that a number of transcription factors are up regulated in pxy mutants. We have been able to show that vascular cell division is regulated by crosstalk between PXY-CLE and ethylene signaling (Etchells et al. 2012) and demonstrated the importance of WOX genes and the receptor kinase ER  in determining vascular cell proliferation and orientation (Etchells et al. 2013).  The receptor kinase PXY and ER also act to regulate the coordination between cell layers during radial growth (Wang et al 2019). Recently this work has led to the development of a transcriptional network controlling plant vascular development (Smit et al. 2020)

We have demonstrated the application of this work by demonstrating its utility in trees. Carefully tissue-specific engineering of both the CLE and PXY genes allowed us to double the production of vascular tissue and plant biomass. Furthermore, these trees were also 50% taller than the controls and possessed leaves that were 50% larger (Etchells et al. 2015).





Funded PhD studentship

How plants create a nanoscale highways in their cell membrane

Professor Simon Turner

University of Manchester

Faculty of Biology Medicine and Health

Rapidly changing weather patterns have made the impact of climate change increasingly obvious. Cellulose is the planet’s most abundant bio-polymer and represents our largest resource of renewable feedstock that can be used to make a variety of different bulk products including biofuels, chemicals and biomaterials. It represents the only current viable alternative to products that are at present derived from fossil fuels, particularly oil, and has the potential to replace many of our oil-based products with the ones that are biodegradable and produced with little, or no, net CO2 emissions.

Cellulose is composed of glucose chains bound together to form rigid microfibrils that are essential for all aspects of plant growth.  It is synthesised by a large complex that is driven through the plasma membrane as it extrudes a growing microfibril. Allowing unimpeded movement of the complex is essential to a cell’s ability to accommodate this process while also maintaining plasma membrane integrity. This proposal will test the hypothesis that protein modification organises membrane partitions that are essential for unimpeded movement of the complex.  Understanding this process will improve our ability to alter plant growth and/or utilise cellulose for bioprocessing.

The overall project is a multidisciplinary approach that uses molecular genetics, proteomics and live cell imaging to study protein post translational modification and its effect on protein localisation in the membrane. This involves the latest techniques including proximity labelling and use of the most up to date and sensitive mass spectrometers and microscopes to study protein organisation within the cell. The PhD student will work with an experienced research associate also funded on this project, but will be responsible for their own particular objectives.

The project is funded by the Leverhulme Trust and the PhD student is funded for 4 years. The start date is the end of September 2020, but a later start dates may be possible. Further information and informal enquires may be made to Professor Simon Turner (simon.turner@manchester.ac.uk), https://www.research.manchester.ac.uk/portal/simon.turner.html. Application should be made online, further information can be found at https://www.bmh.manchester.ac.uk/study/research/funded-programmes/.

To ensure full consideration application should arrive by August 19th, but applications after this date will be considered if the position is not filled.

Expertise related to UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This person’s work contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-being
  • SDG 7 - Affordable and Clean Energy
  • SDG 13 - Climate Action

Education/Academic qualification

Doctor of Science, The effect of the r locus on this synthesis of storage proteins in Pisum sativum, John Innes Centre

25 Sept 198420 Mar 1998

Award Date: 20 Apr 1988

Bachelor of Science, Biochemistry, University of Bristol

25 Sept 197916 Jun 1982

Award Date: 10 Jun 1982

Areas of expertise

  • QK Botany
  • Arabidopsis
  • Cellulose
  • Cell wall
  • Vascular development
  • SD Forestry
  • Wood formation
  • Vascular development
  • QR355 Virology
  • Plant viruses
  • Next generation sequencing

Research Beacons, Institutes and Platforms

  • Biotechnology
  • Energy
  • Manchester Environmental Research Institute


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