Our research focuses on plant cell walls, the structural features of their constituents and their functions in the plant, in plant-based foods, in human and animal nutrition, and in industrial applications. The plant cell wall determines size and shape of a cell, provides strengths, protects against pathogens and abiotic stresses, and controls transport processes.
The plant cell wall as a whole is most important for the texture of plant-based foods such as fruits and vegetables. The structural characteristics of cell wall polymers and consequently their properties are largely altered during ripening and post-harvest processes. In addition, individual constituents determine food texture, e.g. arabinoxylans in bread, and/or can be used as thickening or gelling agents, e.g. pectins or feruloylated arabinoxylans, and/or show emulsifying and encapsulating properties, e.g. pectic polymers.
Because cell walls are the main source of dietary fiber for most of the population, cell components that belong to the dietary fiber complex and are of interest due to their health benefits, e.g. non-starch polysaccharides and lignin, are among our target molecules. Based on their physicochemical properties, cell wall polysaccharides can only have limited functionality in food products, which restricts their addition to food products. Therefore, modification strategies need to be developed in order to tailor the technofunctional properties of cell wall polysaccharides. Partial degradation of these polysaccharides may also result in prebiotic oligosaccharides for food and feed.
Besides food and feed applications, cell walls and their constituents are also the focus of attention as a source of biofuels. Furthermore, due to their gelling, hydration and binding properties plant based polysaccharides may replace synthetic polymers as hydrogels and absorbents in certain applications.
The physicochemical properties of the cell wall polymers depend not only on the chemical structures of the individual compounds, but also on their interactions. Thus, our group also studies plant cell wall cross-links such as oligomeric hydroxycinnamic acids and their impact on the cell wall and plant foods. Besides cell wall polymers and their cross-links, we are interested in certain low-molecular weight phytochemicals, their formation in response to different types of stress, their fate during food processing, and their potential physiological effects in animals and humans.