Maria Peña

Maria Peña
Biomass & Bioenergy, NMR Spectroscopy, Non Tenure-Track Faculty, Plant Cell Walls - Biosynthesis, Structure, and Function
Associate Research Scientist

Short Biography:
Dr. Peña received her B.S. in Biology in 1989 and her M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Plant Biology in 1994 and 1996, respectively, from the University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain). She joined the group of Dr. Carpita at the University of Purdue (West Lafayette, IN) and worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow in fruit ripening and plant growth from 1998 to 2002. She joined the group of Dr. York at the CCRC in 2003 and is now an Assistant Research Scientist. Dr. Peña has 27 full publications, 1 book charter and 1 patent.

Research Interests:
Dr. Peña’s research focuses on plant cell wall polysaccharide synthesis, structure and function. This research involves the application of advance mass spectrometry and NMR spectroscopy techniques for the determination of polysaccharide structure, functional characterization of carbohydrate-active enzymes and protein-carbohydrate interactions. Main current research projects are:

  • Synthesis of plant cell wall hemicelluloses, in particular xylan and xyloglucan, which, after cellulose, are the most abundant polysaccharides produced by vascular plants. Our recent work established the specific biochemical roles of three enzymes responsible for methylation, acetylation and backbone elongation of xylan, which is the third most abundant glycopolymer on earth and one of the major components of plant cell walls. The Identification of these and other enzymes involved in hemicelluloses synthesis is a critical step toward targeted modification of plant cell walls by genetic manipulation of their biosynthesis. The ultimate goal of this work is to generate modified polysaccharides and plant cell walls with improved properties that can be used as renewable sources of biofuels and bio-inspired materials.
  • Understanding specific relationships between the structures of plant cell wall polysaccharides and their functions in plant growth and development. The structures of non-cellulosic wall polysaccharides vary depending plant species, tissue and developmental stage. Our work has resulted in significant contributions to understanding the biological implications of structural diversity of cell wall polysaccharides in land plants. This includes characterization of more than ten novel xyloglucan and xylan side-chain structures. Although the contributions of these structures to the biological functions of the cell walls into which they are deposited are still poorly understood, our research is making progress in this context. For example, we recently discovered a unique acidic xyloglucan sidechain in root hairs that appears to be required for normal tip growth, which is characteristic of this type of cells. Our current focus is the discovery of additional structure/function relationships in order to better understand plant growth, development, adaptation to different habitats, and evolution.