UPTON, NY - One big challenge in converting plants to biofuels is that the very same molecules that keep plants standing up make it hard to break them down. Now scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory are unraveling details of how plant cells' structural supports - their cell walls - are made, with the hope of finding ways to change their composition for more efficient biofuel production.
In a paper to be published the week of December 13, 2010, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers describe details of how precursors to lignin, one important cell-wall component, are transported across cellular membranes prior to linking up. The key finding, that the process requires a class of energy-dependent transporter molecules, may provide a "chink in the armor" that opens a way to alter plants' lignin content.
"Being able to manipulate lignin biosynthesis would have a great influence on our ability to produce renewable biofuels from plant cellulosic feedstocks, and could also have a large effect on many other agricultural and industrial processes, such as the production of paper and more digestible foods for grazing animals," said lead author Chang-Jun Liu, a Brookhaven biologist.
Prior to cell-wall construction, lignin precursors known as monolignols are made in the cell's interior cytoplasm. Some precursors may be sequestered in internal vacuoles for storage, while some move out of the cell to link up and form the lignin component of the cell wall - a protective and supportive barrier around the cell. In both cases, the precursors move across a membrane, either out of the cell or into the vacuole. But no one was certain how the process occurred - whether by simple diffusion or via some active transport mechanism.
The Brookhaven team unraveled the mystery by isolating portions of cellular and vacuolar membrane from Arabidopsis and poplar plants, making
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DOE/Brookhaven National Laboratory