Centre for Synthetic Biology and the Bioeconomy

Past Seminars

Multi-scale, multi-dimensional analysis of plant cell walls: from evolution to applications

Prof William Willats, Prof of Molecular Agri-Diagnostics, School of Natural and Environmental Sciences

Date/Time: 19th of September 2017, 13:00-14:00

Venue: CBCB Baddiley-Clark Building, large meeting room level 2


Plant cell walls are constructed primarily from polysaccharides. These polymers are amongst the most complex biomolecules in Nature and collectively are the largest source of biomass on earth. Insight into the diversity, structure, biosynthesis, processing and degradation of these polysaccharides is essential for us to be able to understand how plants grow and adapt - and this understanding underpins efforts to optimise plant production and crop resilience. But extracted cell wall components also have numerous industrial applications, including as feedstocks for bio-refineries, functional food ingredients, sustainable materials, nutraceuticals and pharmaceuticals. Harnessing the industrial potential of plant cell walls is an important step in transitioning towards a greener bio-economy, but also presents some considerable challenges. On the one hand the complexity of cell walls is the key to their usefulness, but deciphering this complexity requires advanced molecular tools and approaches. In this talk I will present our work towards developing methods that allow us to analyse polysaccharides at multiple scales, from cells to ecosystems, and describe how these methods are helping us to translate the immense, and exquisitely refined, biosynthetic capacity of the plant kingdom into diverse and sustainable application areas.  



William Willats was appointed as Professor of Molecular Agri-Diagnostics at Newcastle University in 2016, and prior to this was a Professor of Plant Glycobiology at Copenhagen University for 14 years.

His main research interests are all centred around plant and algal glycobiology and particularly the highly complex polysaccharides from which their cell walls are constructed. These polysaccharides have numerous important biological roles and industrial applications – from renewable materials to nutraceuticals. However, the sheer complexity and diversity of cell wall components presents considerable challenges for analysis, manipulation and processing. As well basic research projects, especially in the area of evolution and diversity, the Willats’ group is also active in developing advanced tools that allow us to track cell wall polysaccharides in time and space, and thereby help harness their applied potential in diverse industrial sectors.