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Learning secrets of world's most common organic compound driving research for biofuels
Date:8/23/2011

MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Preliminary research at Kansas State University may make a difference one day at the gas pump.

Many scientists believe that cellulose, the most common organic compound on earth, has enough energy to be the next source for biofuels -- if a procedure to effectively break it down could be devised. Cellulose is a cell wall component that gives plants their rigidity.

Kathrin Schrick, assistant professor in Kansas State University's Division of Biology, has been awarded nearly $900,000 for the next four years from the National Science Foundation to investigate the role sterols, fat-soluble molecules, play in the cell's production of cellulose.

"If we can understand how it is made and how to break it down into simple sugars, then we can generate energy," Schrick said. "We know that sterols are important in making cellulose, but we are not clear how they work. This grant is funding research that should help us with that."

Cellulose is composed of complex fibers made of sugar. Since its strength functions to keep plant tissue sturdy, it also makes it difficult to break down, Schrick said. It requires harsh pretreatment and expensive enzymes, so Schrick hopes her research will provide an understanding of how cellulose is made, which might give insight on how to break it down more easily.

"Not even the structure of cellulose synthase, the enzyme responsible for activating cellulose machinery, is known. We can model it, we can imagine how it looks but we don't really know, and we know even less about how it functions," Schrick said.

Schrick has two hypotheses for sterols' association with the cellulose machinery. She believes that sterols either help to stabilize the construction of cellulose, or they transfer glucose residues to the machinery to make cellulose.

"We know that the machinery that builds cellulose sits in the plasma membrane. Our hypothesis is that the protein complex that makes
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Contact: Kathrin Schrick
kschrick@k-state.edu
785-532-6360
Kansas State University
Source:Eurekalert

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