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Cellulose is a key component of plant cell walls that can be converted
into ethanol and other products. New findings from the Agricultural
Research Service (ARS) could help make that conversion process easier.
Plant walls contain cellulose, the main component of paper and a source
of sugars for ethanol production. Cellulose could be described as the
"brick" of the cell wall, while pectin, hemicellulose and lignin
function like mortar, cementing everything together.
Lignin is vital for plant survival, but its structure impedes cellulose
conversion. But what if lignin were altered so that it would break down
easier, thus facilitating the production of paper, ethanol and other
That's the goal of ARS scientists at the U.S. Dairy Forage Research
Center in Madison, Wis. There, research agronomist John
Grabber--working with ARS plant physiologist Ronald Hatfield, Fachuang
Lu of the University of Wisconsin, and John Ralph, formerly with ARS
and now at the University of Wisconsin--has designed lignin that breaks
down more easily.
Grabber and his colleagues first tested the effects of changing the
cell walls in a laboratory--before applying those changes to live
plants--by incorporating a chemical compound called coniferyl ferulate
into lignin formed within cell walls. First, they synthesized the
compound in the lab and added it to cell walls isolated from corn. Then
they subjected the cell walls to alkaline treatments, which are
commonly used to degrade lignin.
The altered lignin broke down more readily than conventional lignin
under mild alkaline conditions, demonstrating the potential for this
modification to facilitate cellulose use.
Further research showed that incorporating other molecules such as
feruloyl and caffeoylquinic acid into lignin could also enhance
cellulose utilization. Hatfield, Ralph and ARS geneticist Jane Marita
at Madison are now leading efforts to engineer plants to make lignin
with coniferyl ferulate.
This work has potential benefits not just for paper and ethanol
production, but also for livestock production. Modified lignin could
make fibrous crops more digestible, allowing producers to feed more
forage crops and less grain to their livestock.
ARS is a scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
ARS News Service
Agricultural Research Service, USDA
Laura McGinnis, (301) 504-1654, [email protected]
December 9, 2008
--View this report online, plus photos and related stories, at www.ars.usda.gov/is/pr
© 2004-2008 by foodconsumer.org unless otherwise specified
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