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NC State receives NSF grant to discover plant 'switchboards'
Date:9/2/2009

A new four-year, $3.72 million grant to North Carolina State University will allow researchers to shed light on an important mystery how genes impact the type and amount of "glue," known as lignin, produced in trees. Understanding the role of lignin, which binds fibers together to form wood, has significant implications in the production of paper products, biofuels and construction materials.

The National Science Foundation Plant Genome Research grant will spur the most comprehensive analysis of lignin regulation ever undertaken. By triggering genetic "on/off switches" in more than 10,000 trees, researchers will determine how each of the 33 lignin-producing genes impact the type and amount of lignin in wood of the model tree species, black cottonwood.

"Additional lignin creates an even stronger wood, so having lots of lignin can be advantageous in developing construction materials or wood-burning energy. To create products like paper or to produce bioethanol, however, lignin needs to be removed from wood," says Dr. Vincent Chiang, Jordan Family Distinguished Professor for Natural Resource Innovation, co-director of NC State's Forest Biotechnology Group and the study's principal investigator. "Removing lignin to make paper products is the basis of a $300 billion global industry, and the efficient conversion of plant biomass to ethanol is largely determined by the lignin.

"To produce bioethanol from wood, lignin needs to be broken down by expensive chemical pretreatment," Chiang continues. "When we reduce the lignin by modifying the genes, we can eliminate chemical pretreatment, which is typically 35 percent of the cost of producing ethanol from any lignin containing plant biomass."

To develop a more comprehensive understanding of the lignin biosynthesis pathway, researchers will eliminate each pathway gene, one at a time. Then the team will determine the role each gene plays in producing a specific type and amount of lignin
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Contact: Caroline M. Barnhill
caroline_barnhill@ncsu.edu
919-515-6251
North Carolina State University
Source:Eurekalert

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