Chris Somerville
Professor and Director
Department of Plant and Microbial Biology
(510) 643-6265

Research Expertise and Interest

biochemistry, biotechnology, bioenergy, cell biology, biofuels, cell walls, polysaccharides, cellulose, arabidopsis, cellulose synthase


The research program in my lab is largely directed toward understanding how plant cell wall polysaccharides are synthesized, how the structures relate to the functions of the cell wall, and how the system is regulated. I envision that knowledge of cell wall structure and function will facilitate the development of plants with improved utility as sources of renewable materials and as biofuel feedstocks. A major focus of work in the lab is in understanding how cellulose is made. We have developed plants in which cellulose synthase is modified in various ways that facilitate functional studies. One type of modification is the addition of yellow fluorescent protein to subunits of the complex. This allows imaging of the complexes in live cells. We have used this capability to show that an interaction between cellulose synthase and cortical microtubules controls the orientation of cellulose deposition. We are engaged in understanding what regulates the amount of cellulose and the properties of cellulose microfibrils (eg., length and diameter). We have also developed plants that express cellulose synthases with other modifications that will facilitate structural studies of isolated complexes.

Several members of my group are studying the synthesis and function of O-glycans on selected proteins in the fungus Neurospora crassa. We have completed an analysis of the structures of the various glycan on the CBHI cellulase and are using that information to try and understand the substrate specificity of the various glycosyltransferases involved in O-glycan synthesis. A long-term goal is to learn how to engineer new O-glycans onto proteins to modify their interactions with other compounds, such as lignin.

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