Caitlin Howell

My Research

Caitlin HowellMy research involves examining the biomodification of wood by wood degrading fungi, and attempting to duplicate these effects with chemicals and enzymes. In particular I am focusing on the changes in wood bound cellulose nanocrystals, which I examine using x-ray diffraction. X-ray diffraction allows us to non-destructively monitor both the average crystal size and the overall percent crystallinity in the wood over time. The fungi that I study have unique ways of manipulating the wood polymers and the cellulose crystallinity in order to liberate and digest the nutritious monosugars, however the exact mechanisms that they employ during this process are still not completely understood. Wood decay fungi are one of only a few types of organisms on the planet that have evolved ways of accessing and deconstructing recalcitrant wood components. By thoroughly understanding the mechanisms that they use to achieve these ends we may further our ability to do it efficiently.

In Other Words

Jody Jellison and studentsI study the way that wood decay fungi break down wood, and try to copy what they do with chemicals. Wood is complex, so I focus on one particular part of it: cellulose crystals. Within all wood there are places where the long chains of sugars that give wood its strength get close enough together to bind to each other and create a regularly pattered structure, like blocks in a Rubik’s cube. We can “see” these Rubik’s cube-like cellulose crystals in the wood by hitting them with x-rays and examining what bounces back at us. Cellulose crystals are very hard to break apart, and this is one of the reasons why completely breaking down wood to make other things out of it is still very expensive and difficult. Wood decay fungi discovered ways of breaking apart cellulose crystals millions of years ago, and have been making a living doing it ever since. If we can learn from these fungi how they break down cellulose crystals, we might be able to use their ideas to better break down wood ourselves.

My Publications