Plant surfaces: Essential biological tissue and model chemical material…


Leaves, flowers, fruits and primary plant stems are covered with a waxy “skin” called the cuticle. The surface of the cuticle forms the interface between plants and their environment, and is therefore essential for plant survival and performance.

  • The wax restricts water loss to the atmosphere and thus performs a central physiological role.
  • The cuticle also acts as the plant’s first barrier against pathogens and herbivores.
  • Characteristic cuticular compounds may serve as deterrents against insects, and specialized herbivores may use them as clues for host-plant recognition.
  • Microstructures and nanostructures on the plant surface can reduce the adhesion of insect feet, thereby creating slippery grounds for the animals.


Although we know that the cuticle performs all these functions, we don’t understand how its chemical composition relates to its material properties.


The research in my lab aims at providing basic knowledge that will enable us to:


  • better protect crop plants against adverse conditions, especially against stressful environments created by climate change by working towards more drought-tolerant crop lines;
  • engineer novel chemical structures that are analogous to those on plant leaves, to improve the surface properties of artificial materials; for example, plant-like wax coatings can protect building materials against adverse climatic conditions, and they can make medical materials more compatible with human tissues;
  • bio-engineer algae and higher plants as renewable sources of new chemical commodities; for example, our research on the biosynthesis of wax alkanes is fundamental for future processing of second-generation biofuels derived from lipid metabolism.


In order to reach these goals, we work to gain a fundamental understanding of plant wax biosynthesis, composition and biological function. All three aspects of plant waxes are being investigated by biology and chemistry students collaborating in my lab. We are combining methods from the areas of analytical and organic chemistry, molecular genetics, microscopy, eco-physiology and biochemistry. We study diverse plants, including crop species (tomato and wheat), genetic model species (Arabidopsis) and eco-physiological model species (Kalanchoe, Macaranga, and Nepenthes). Our current projects aim to:


  • elucidate the structures of novel wax components in order to uncover their biosynthesis;
  • map spatial and temporal patterns in which compounds accumulate on plant surfaces, in order to enable bio-mimetic materials design;
  • assess the eco-physiological functions of individual wax compounds on the plant surface, in order to enable crop breeding towards enhanced stress tolerance;
  • characterize genes and enzymes involved in wax biosynthesis, in order to provide tools for bioengineering.


Students in my lab pursue projects in the discipline of their home department (chemistry or botany), but all my students collaborate and thus have exposure to both disciplines. If they choose, they can perform chemical as well as biological experiments, thereby gaining experience in both specializations. By obtaining diverse, interdisciplinary experience, graduates from my lab are excellent applicants for positions in both industry and academia.

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