Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Newly discovered plant structure may lead to improved biofuel processing

When Li Tan approached his colleagues at the University of Georgia with some unusual data he had collected, they initially seemed convinced that his experiment had become contaminated; what he was seeing simply didn't make any sense.
Tan was examining some of the sugars, proteins and polymers that make up plant cell walls, which provide the structural support and protection that allow plants to grow. Yet his samples contained a mixture of sugars that should not be present in the same structure.

However, Tan was convinced that his samples were pure so he and Debra Mohnen, who heads the lab, met again to pore over the data. They came to realize that there were hints in the data of a connection between two different types of cell wall glycans (sugars) and a specific cell wall protein known as arabinogalactan protein. This connection is not known to exist and does not conform to the commonly held scientific definitions of plant cell wall structure.

But Tan and Mohnen, who both work as part of the BioEnergy Science Center, one of three U.S. Department of Energy-funded research centers, were persistent, and they, along with an interdisciplinary team of chemists, molecular biologists and plant experts at UGA, began searching for answers. What they found could redefine our understanding of basic plant biology, and it may lead to significant improvements in the growth and processing of biofuel crops.

"This is totally new," said Tan, a research scientist in the Complex Carbohydrate Research Center and lead author of a paper detailing the group's findings published Jan. 31 in an early online edition of The Plant Cell. "We had never seen linkages between these structures before, and we had to develop a variety of new tests to prove that what we saw was not simply a mistake or a contamination."

The scientific community generally agrees that complex sugars like pectin and xylan, which allow for cell wall structure, extension and growth, exist in separate networks from cell wall proteins. But the UGA researchers have identified a direct and indisputable link between these two domains.

"What this means is that plant scientists' view of the plant cell wall is at least partially wrong," said Mohnen, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and a member of UGA's Complex Carbohydrate Research Center. "There have been hints over the last 30 or 40 years that this link might exist, but no one has been able to prove it until now."

The discovery has many far-reaching implications beyond the ways it may change biology textbooks. As concerns about the reality of global climate change continue to rise, scientists are working diligently to find useful alternatives to fossil fuel-derived energy.

Biofuels created from cultivated crops like trees and grasses show great promise as a carbon-neutral source of ethanol, but converting plants into fuel that might be used to power automobiles or create heat for homes has proven difficult. Millions of years of evolution have made plants resistant to breakdown, and the sugars needed for fermentation into ethanol are locked inside their complex cell walls.

But Tan and Mohnen are hopeful that their discovery combined with additional research will reveal many of the secrets of plant cell wall architecture and function, making them easier to break down or perhaps opening the doors for engineered plants that will work better as a feedstock for the biofuels industry and as better agricultural products.

"The applications that will emerge from this discovery are enormous," said Mohnen. "It's all going to stem from a refined understanding of how plants are put together and how they are made, but once we know that, we can start modifying them to make them perform in ways that are most advantageous to us."

"We've only just scratched the surface," she said. "But once we investigate this further and we understand the plant exceptionally well, the sky's the limit."

The research was funded through grants from the National Science Foundation and by the BioEnergy Science Center.

Complex Carbohydrate Research Center
The Complex Carbohydrate Research Center was founded at the University of Georgia in 1985 and is one of only three centers worldwide dedicated to the study of complex carbohydrates, which play critical roles in cellular communication, gene expression, immunology, organism defense mechanisms, growth and development. The 140,000-square-foot facility is home to 17 interdisciplinary research groups, including four federally designated centers for carbohydrate research. In addition to UGA research projects, the center also provides analytical services and training to university, government and industrial scientists interested in complex carbohydrate molecules. For more information about the center, see

Debra Mohnen | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Understanding a missing link in how antidepressants work
25.11.2015 | Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry, München

nachricht Plant Defense as a Biotech Tool
25.11.2015 | Austrian Centre of Industrial Biotechnology (ACIB)

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

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

Im Focus: Lactate for Brain Energy

Nerve cells cover their high energy demand with glucose and lactate. Scientists of the University of Zurich now provide new support for this. They show for the first time in the intact mouse brain evidence for an exchange of lactate between different brain cells. With this study they were able to confirm a 20-year old hypothesis.

In comparison to other organs, the human brain has the highest energy requirements. The supply of energy for nerve cells and the particular role of lactic acid...

Im Focus: Laser process simulation available as app for first time

In laser material processing, the simulation of processes has made great strides over the past few years. Today, the software can predict relatively well what will happen on the workpiece. Unfortunately, it is also highly complex and requires a lot of computing time. Thanks to clever simplification, experts from Fraunhofer ILT are now able to offer the first-ever simulation software that calculates processes in real time and also runs on tablet computers and smartphones. The fast software enables users to do without expensive experiments and to find optimum process parameters even more effectively.

Before now, the reliable simulation of laser processes was a job for experts. Armed with sophisticated software packages and after many hours on computer...

Im Focus: Quantum Simulation: A Better Understanding of Magnetism

Heidelberg physicists use ultracold atoms to imitate the behaviour of electrons in a solid

Researchers at Heidelberg University have devised a new way to study the phenomenon of magnetism. Using ultracold atoms at near absolute zero, they prepared a...

Im Focus: Climate Change: Warm water is mixing up life in the Arctic

AWI researchers’ unique 15-year observation series reveals how sensitive marine ecosystems in polar regions are to change

The warming of arctic waters in the wake of climate change is likely to produce radical changes in the marine habitats of the High North. This is indicated by...

Im Focus: Nanocarriers may carry new hope for brain cancer therapy

Berkeley Lab researchers develop nanoparticles that can carry therapeutics across the brain blood barrier

Glioblastoma multiforme, a cancer of the brain also known as "octopus tumors" because of the manner in which the cancer cells extend their tendrils into...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

Gluten oder nicht Gluten? Überempfindlichkeit auf Weizen kann unterschiedliche Ursachen haben

17.11.2015 | Event News

Art Collection Deutsche Börse zeigt Ausstellung „Traces of Disorder“

21.10.2015 | Event News

Siemens Healthcare introduces the Cios family of mobile C-arms

20.10.2015 | Event News

Latest News

Plant Defense as a Biotech Tool

25.11.2015 | Life Sciences

“move“ – on course for the mobility of the future

25.11.2015 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Understanding a missing link in how antidepressants work

25.11.2015 | Life Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>