Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Key Plant Traits Yield More Sugar for Biofuels

New clues about plant structure are helping researchers from the Department of Energy’s BioEnergy Science Center narrow down a large collection of poplar tree candidates and identify winners for future use in biofuel production.

Led by Charles Wyman of the Bourns College of Engineering’s Center for Environmental Research and Technology at the University of California, Riverside, a research team from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and UCR determined that the amount and composition of lignin in the plant’s cell wall interact in an unanticipated way to influence release of sugar from the plant.

The research was published as “Lignin content in natural Populus variants affects sugar release,” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Lignin serves as a major roadblock for biofuel production because it forms strong bonds with sugars and interferes with access to these carbohydrates, making it difficult to extract the plant’s sugars contained in cellulose and hemicellulose for conversion to transportation fuels.

“The real driver for bioenergy is how to get sugar as cheaply as possible from these recalcitrant materials,” Wyman said. “We’re looking for clues as to which traits in these poplar materials will lead to better sugar release.”

Using a high-throughput screening method, the BESC researchers rapidly analyzed an unprecedented number of poplar core samples in their search to understand the chemical factors that drive sugar yields.

The analysis revealed a correlation between one plant trait, the S/G ratio, and increased sugar yields. The ratio refers to the two main building blocks of lignin – syringyl and guaiacyl subunits.

"The conventional wisdom is that high lignin contents are bad for sugar release," said lead author Michael Studer. "We unexpectedly found that this statement is only valid for low S/G ratios, while at high S/G ratios lignin does not negatively influence yields. However, replacement of carbohydrates with lignin reduces the maximum possible sugar release."

"Another interesting result was that the samples with the highest sugar release belonged to the group with average S/G ratios and lignin contents. This finding points to a need for deeper understanding of cell wall structure before plants can be rationally engineered for efficient biofuels production,” Studer said.

The team’s study also pinpointed certain poplar samples that produced unusually high sugar yields with no pretreatment. Biofuel production typically requires various pretreatments, such as applying high temperature and pressure to the biomass. Reducing pretreatment would represent a substantial decrease in the price of liquid transportation fuels produced from lignocellulosic feedstocks like poplar.

“It's very enticing that several of the samples released more sugar than typical with no pretreatment,” Wyman said.

Poplar trees, botanically known as Populus, represent the leading woody crop candidate for the production of biomass feedstocks for the creation of biofuels in the U.S. Naturally occurring selections of poplar trees contained wide variations in all observed traits, says Gerald Tuskan, an ORNL plant biologist and one of the co-leads of the study.

“We can mine this natural variability and find extreme poplar phenotypes that have value in increasing sugar yield,” Tuskan said. “Moreover, these native individuals are adapted to local environments.”

From this work, superior poplar cultivars may soon be available for commercial testing and propagation, yielding plant materials that will contribute to reducing the nation’s dependence on fossil fuel based transportation fuels.

The team, supported by BESC at ORNL, included co-lead Mark Davis and Robert Sykes from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Jaclyn DeMartini from UCR, and Brian Davison and Martin Keller from ORNL.

BESC is one of three DOE Bioenergy Research Centers established by the DOE's Office of Science in 2007. The centers support multidisciplinary, multi-institutional research teams pursuing the fundamental scientific breakthroughs needed to make production of cellulosic biofuels, or biofuels from nonfood plant fiber, cost-effective on a national scale. The three centers are coordinated at ORNL, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Wisconsin-Madison in partnership with Michigan State University.

The Bourns College of Engineering's Center for Environmental Research and Technology (CE-CERT) at UCR is a model for partnerships between industry, government and academia. It is a recognized leader in research and education in the areas of atmospheric processes, emissions and fuels, sustainable energy and transportation systems.

ORNL is managed by UT-Battelle for the Department of Energy's Office of Science.


Caption: Scientists from the Department of Energy’s BioEnergy Research Center are testing core samples from poplar trees to identify key characteristics that influence how the plants can be more effectively processed into biofuels.

NOTE TO EDITORS: You may read other press releases from Oak Ridge National Laboratory or learn more about the lab at Additional information about ORNL is available at the sites below:

Twitter -

RSS Feeds -

Flickr -

YouTube -

LinkedIn -

Facebook -

MEDIA CONTACT: Morgan McCorkle
Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Communications and External Relations
(865) 574-7308;
Bourns College of Engineering, UC Riverside
(951) 827-1287;

Morgan McCorkle | Newswise Science News
Further information:

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Gene therapy shows promise for treating Niemann-Pick disease type C1
27.10.2016 | NIH/National Human Genome Research Institute

nachricht 'Neighbor maps' reveal the genome's 3-D shape
27.10.2016 | International School of Advanced Studies (SISSA)

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

How nanoscience will improve our health and lives in the coming years

27.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

OU-led team discovers rare, newborn tri-star system using ALMA

27.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

'Neighbor maps' reveal the genome's 3-D shape

27.10.2016 | Life Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>