I started as an OpenPlant PhD student at the University of Cambridge in September 2016, where I will complete three rotation projects before selecting my final PhD project. I am interested in all parts of plant biochemistry, but my projects tend to focus on the characterization and manipulation of enzymes and catalytic pathways.
In my first rotation project, I worked with Prof. Alison G Smith in Cambridge on metabolic gene clusters, developing methods for the expression of higher plant clusters in algae and yeast, and the detection of potential clusters endogenous to algae themselves. During this time I wrote a number of computer scripts for cluster detection and began the assembly of a heterologous expression system using a yeast MoClo system from the Dueber Lab.
Now in my second rotation project, I am working with Paul Dupree to study and engineer cell wall-modifying enzymes for improved crops, food and materials. I have been using OpenPlant heterologous expression systems and a transient expression construct from the Lomonossoff lab to assess the stability of glycosyltransferases in vitro, with the aim of finding better enzymes for further study and exploitation. Increasing our understanding of these enzymes may ultimately permit the creation of designer fibres and saccharides, as well as being able to manipulate the properties of plant cell walls.
I am applying the genome editing tools to generate novel, commercially or nutritionally valuable glucans in model crop species. The primary objective of my OpenPlant project is to generate potatoes that contain digestion-resistant starches with two major nutritional benefits: reduced calorie intake from consumption of chips, crisps and other potato-based foods and increased supply of complex carbohydrates to the microbiota of the lower gut that reduces risk of several diseases including colorectal cancer and type II diabetes.
More specifically, the project involves knocking out the gene(s) of starch branching enzymes I and/or II using crispr-CAS9 method thereby increasing the ratio of amylose to amylopectin (linear to branched starch chains) in tubers without significantly compromising the starch yield. The engineered starch will be less accessible to starch degrading enzymes, thus more resistant to digestion.