My research focuses on two main areas, lignin biosynthesis and meiotic recombination, although I also maintain an active interest in enabling techniques for plant biotechnology. Lignin is an essential component of many plant cell walls, where it waterproofs and rigidifies the structure, protecting it from degradation. This complicates the release of cell wall sugars or cellulose during ruminant digestion and in biofuel and paper production, although lignin itself is a useful staring material for the production of valuable chemicals. The lignin biosynthesis pathway has been well-studied but is still yielding surprises and important basic features are poorly understood. The spatial organisation of the pathway, how it is regulated, and how it coordinates with other aspects of cell wall development and wider plant metabolism, are areas of intensive current research. A major applied focus is to understand how lignin can be manipulated in plant biomass to enable the production of second generation biofuels.
The Halpin group are using association genetics in barley (in collaboration with Robbie Waugh, JHI) along with barley and Arabidopsis mutants and transgenics where lignin has been manipulated, to discover new genes related to lignin biosynthesis and to determine how lignin properties affect different bioenergy applications. We are one of 6 research hubs in the BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre (BSBEC http://www.bsbec.bbsrc.ac.uk/). Within BSBEC, we lead the ‘Cell Wall Lignin Programme’ which aims to identify barley genotypes that facilitate efficient biofuel production from straw, and provide molecular markers for breeding improved energy crops. Our Arabidopsis work is funded by programme grants from the Global Climate and Energy Project (http://gcep.stanford.edu/), in collaboration with lignin experts in Belgium and the USA.
Our research on meiotic recombination also focusses on barley where, in common with many other important crop species, large areas of chromosomes rarely, if ever, recombine. This limits the creation and exploitation of genetic diversity that is a fundamental process underlying crop breeding programmes. Greater understanding of how recombination is controlled in barley might allow us to manipulate the process to improve the available genetic diversity and the speed and accuracy of plant breeding. We are building on knowledge of recombination generated in Arabidopsis to evaluate the role of orthologous barley genes in recombination using both transgenic and mutant plants.