Plant biochemist focusing on forages, biofuels

University of Nevada, Reno's Assistant professor Ian Wallace.

Ian Wallace remembers the precise moment that he became interested in plant cell walls. It was several years ago, and he was in graduate school at the University of Tennessee. He was working on a project and needed to know something about plant cell wall biosynthesis, so he consulted one of the foremost text books for plant biochemists.

To his dismay, the "thick, green book" revealed very little about cellulose biosynthesis. The book displayed little more than "this blob splitting out cellulose."

"It really kind of irritated me," said Wallace, who just started work as an assistant professor in the biochemistry department at CABNR. "Here I was thinking we must know everything about cellulose biosynthesis, but it turns out that there was a lot to still learn. It was a weird response - to be irritated - but it helped me decide what I wanted to contribute to."

Wallace, a plant biochemist, got his bachelor's and Ph.D from the University of Tennessee and in 2009 began working in the lab of Dr. Chris Somerville at Cal.

Somerville's lab studies how plant cell wall polysaccharides are created, and how those polysaccharides relate to the functions of the cell wall. Somerville feels that knowledge of cell wall structure and function will help develop plants that are better sources of renewable materials and biofuel feedstocks.

Wallace's role in Somerville's lab was to investigate the molecular mechanisms of plant cell wall biosynthesis and regulation, and Wallace hopes to expand on that work at CABNR. Wallace hopes a better understanding of the basics of plant cell wall biosynthesis will lead to techniques for manipulating that process to increase forage fiber nutritional value and develop new biofuel feedstocks for Northern Nevada.

"Plant cell walls fascinate me because they are extremely important to plant development, but are also integral components of biofuel feedstocks as well as forage fiber for animal nutrition," Wallace said.

Wallace's wife, Dr. Veronica Zepeda, will also start work in the biochemistry department in January. The couple was married in March this year.

"It's really great the way it worked out for us both to be able to come to Reno," Wallace said. "The school was interested in both of us, and that made it particularly appealing."

Wallace is also looking forward to collaborating with other researchers at CABNR and other colleges at UNR.

He's already discussed potential collaborations with Antonio Faciola, an assistant professor in the Department of Agriculture, Nutrition and Veterinary Sciences. Faciola studies ruminant nutrition with the goal of improving animal production and minimizing the environmental impact of livestock operations in Nevada.

In the short term, Wallace said, another goal is to develop forage crops with more easily digestible cell wall materials, which would benefit Nevada's cattle production economy. He'd also like to work with CABNR Prof. John Cushman to research the potential of Opuntia (prickly pear cactus) as a forage crop.