Personal profile

Research interests

 

Plant Cell Walls; the Fabric of Life

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 chemical 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 inf 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 cell walls that are much better suited to use either as generating novel by materials, or as a rich source of sugars to generate biofuels or other chemicals.

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

Our system: from weeds to trees

Much of our fundamental work is performed in the model plant Arabidopsis, however nearly everything we learn in Arabidopsis is broadly applicable to other plant species. This was clearly demonstrated in our work on the control of radial growth in trees. Using genes identified in Arabidopsis we were able to generate Poplars that grew faster and generated nearly twice as much biomass as their unmodified controls (Etchells et al. 2015). We have also identified a novel plant virus that down regulates lignin deposition in trees (Allen et al. 2022).

Projects

Exploiting proteomics to explore the fundamentals of cellulose synthesis.

Arabidopsis molecular genetics continues to be essential an essential part of our work, however, while we have previously relied heavily on transcriptomics and expression data to uncover co-expression networks, we are now increasingly incorporate proteomics in our study. In particular, proximity labelling is a powerful tool for identifying proteins that co locate in situ. We currently use this method to identify components required to synthesis cellulose, traffic the cellulose synthase complex around the cell and identify important regulators of this process.

Synthesising novel celluloses microfibrils in plants

While higher plant synthesise probably all initially synthesise a similar cellulose microfibril based on 18 individual glucose chains that is determine in large part by the organisation of the cellulose synthase rosettes that forms, hexameric structure, composed of six different lobes (Wilson et al. 2021). At the centre of this complex are the catalytic subunits know as CESA proteins that we extensively study to understand the importance in the variation of CESA protein structure (Kumar 2019).  We have successfully used CESA proteins from lower plants to synthesise cellulose in higher plants and have had good success in altering the properties of the cellulose that is synthesised. In particular we can make dramatic changes to the crystallinity of the cellulose microfibril that allow the sugars to be more easily released from the wall facilitating their use as a feedstock for biofuel or other chemical production.  This is the first towards making rational changes to the properties of cellulose microfibrils by altering the structure of individual CESA proteins. 

Huge natural variation in cellulose microfibrils structure exists in the plant world. In particular different species of algae synthesis cellulose  microfibrils of entirely different shapes and sizes and in some cases the same algae is able to make both small and large cellulose microfibrils. Our improved understanding of the fundamentals of cellulose synthase complex trafficking and assembly will allow us to understand how to successfully express these algal celluloses in higher plants.  The ultimate aim would be to generate higher plants that are able to make cellulose microfibrils with structures. comparable to those found in algae and enable us to generate a new generation of plant-based materials.

Modifications controlling protein localisation.

Protein S-acylation is a comparatively poorly understood protein modification that involved the transfer of a fatty acid group to a cysteine residue and greatly increases the hydrophobicity of proteins. As part of a study of CESA proteins, it became clear they were extensively modified by S-acylation. In fact, we estimate that the single cellulose synthase complex may have more than 100 acyl chains added to it, that is likely to dramatically alter its physical properties and also determine how it partitions within the membrane (Kumar et al. 2016). To identify other proteins that were modified by S-acylation, we undertook a global study of in Arabidopsis and identified more than 1000 modified proteins. The work also confirmed that many other proteins involved  in cellulose synthesis were also modified in this way. The study was also  a graphic illustration of the increase power of approaches based on proteomic. 

Acyl groups are added to cysteines by a group of proteins, known as protein, acyltransferases (PATs). Mutants in PATs exhibit interesting but complex pleiotropic phenotypes. To understand the basis of these phenotypes we really need to identify the substrate for individual PATs. We are currently exploring combining all skills in  BioID with our knowledge of S-acylation sites to identify PAT protein substrates.

References

Kumar, M., Carr, P., and Turner, S.R. (2022). An Atlas of Arabidopsis Protein S-Acylation Reveals Its Widespread Role in Plant Cell Organization and Function. Nature Plants 8, 670-681. doi:10.1038/s41477-022-01164-4

Allen, H., Zeef, L., Morreel, K., Goeminne, G., Kumar, M., Gomez, L.D., Dean, A.P., Eckmann, A., Casiraghi, C., McQueen-Mason, S.J., Boerjan, W., and Turner, S.R. (2022). Flexible and Digestible Wood Caused by Viral-Induced Alteration of Cell Wall Composition. Curr. Biol. 32, 3398-3406.e3396. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2022.06.005

Wilson, T.H., Kumar, M., and Turner, S.R. (2021). The Molecular Basis of Plant Cellulose Synthase Complex Organisation and Assembly. Biochem. Soc. Trans. 49, 379-391. doi:10.1042/bst20200697

Kumar, M., Mishra, L., Carr, P., Pilling, M., Gardner, P., Mansfield, S.D., and Turner, S.R. (2018). Exploiting Cellulose Synthase (Cesa) Class-Specificity to Probe Cellulose Microfibril Biosynthesis. Plant Physiol. 177, 151-167. doi:10.1104/pp.18.00263

Kumar, M., Atanassov, I., and Turner, S. (2017). Functional Analysis of Cellulose Synthase (Cesa) Protein Class Specificity. Plant Physiol. 173, 970-983. doi:10.1104/pp.16.01642

Kumar, M., Wightman, R., Atanassov, I., Gupta, A., Hurst, C.H., Hemsley, P.A., and Turner, S. (2016). S-Acylation of the Cellulose Synthase Complex Is Essential for Its Plasma Membrane Localization. Science 353, 166-169. doi:10.1126/science.aaf4009

Turner, S.R., and Somerville, C.R. (1997). Collapsed Xylem Phenotype of Arabidopsis Identifies Mutants Deficient in Cellulose Deposition in the Secondary Cell Wall. Plant Cell 9, 689-701. doi:10.2307/3870425

Opportunities

Funded PhD studentship

 
 
 
Application Deadline: 19 January 2024
 
Details

Rapidly increasing CO2 levels and the way in which this is altering our climate has become one of the most pressing problems of our age. One means of reducing CO2 emissions is to use biomass as a renewable source of feedstock to generate biofuels, biomaterial, and other chemicals. Plant cell walls are the only source of biomass that are sufficiently abundant to make a meaningful contribution to decreasing CO2 emissions. Cellulose, a polymer of glucose, is the world’s most abundant biopolymer. It has remarkable structural properties that make it very strong and insoluble. We have a long track record in understanding how cellulose is synthesised in higher plants such as Arabidopsis. However, lower plants offer an untapped source of variation in the way in which cellulose is synthesised and the structure of the cellulose microfibril that it produces. The availability of very large amounts of sequence information from a wide variety of plants, including many diverse algae, offers an excellent opportunity to examine the diversity in cellulose structure and synthesis. Algae and other lower plants make a wide variety of cellulose microfibrils that differ in their size and shape, exhibiting widely varying mechanical and chemical properties. Understanding how to synthesise novel cellulose in higher plants would offer the opportunity to generate novel biomaterials from a truly renewable source and start to unlock the full potential of this remarkable polymer for the use in the synthesis of a new generation of biomaterials that are both biodegradable and derived from a completely renewable resource.

The start date is the end of September 2024. 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/bbsrc-dtp/projects/

 

Opportunities

Unlocking the potential of plant cellulose for the production of new materials and chemicals

Professor Simon Turner, Dr Jon Pittman

The University of Manchester   

Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health

Plant biomass, in the form of plant cell walls are the only renewable resource sufficiently abundant to make a meaningful contribution to decreasing CO2 emissions. Cellulose is a polymer of glucose with remarkable structural properties and the world’s most abundant biopolymer that can be used as a source of raw material for chemical and fuel production, or for generating novel biomaterials.

Our research has been pivotal in revealing how cellulose is synthesised in higher plants. There is, however, enormous diversity in both how different plant species synthesise cellulose and in the properties of the cellulose they produce. This project will exploit: (1) the availability of large numbers of plant genome sequences, (2) our increased understanding of the assembly and trafficking of the cellulose synthase complex and (3) recent development of novel proteomic methods to reveal how different plant species produce a wide variety of cellulose types. This information will then be used to make novel celluloses in higher plants and test their utility for the production of novel biomaterials.

We have developed an excellent system for producing novel celluloses in plants that has been tested using genes from a variety of different plants species, including lower plants such as moss. By exploiting a large number of different mutations and genes already available in the laboratory we would like to extend this study and make a much wider variety of different celluloses with altered mechanical properties that can be exploited to generate new biomaterials. This will be facilitated by exploiting recent progress in proteomics, in particular the use of proximity labelling to further our basic understanding of how plants synthesis cellulose and what determines its properties.

Further information and details of how to apply can be found at;

https://www.findaphd.com/phds/project/unlocking-the-potential-of-plant-cellulose-for-the-production-of-new-materials-and-chemicals/?p163782

 

Biography

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.

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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