Wisconsin Energy Institute

Discovery of new enzyme could yield better plants for biofuel


Celia Luterbacher


Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center

August 15, 2013

The presence of lignin in secondary plant cell walls can be visualized using specific dyes. On this cross section of an Arabidopsis stem, the lignin has been stained red.

For nearly a decade, scientists have thought that they understood how plants produce lignin — a compound that gives plant tissues their structure and sturdiness, but can limit their use as a source of biofuels.

Now, thanks to a collaboration involving the U.S. Department of Energy Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) and several international institutions, researchers have identified a new gene responsible for producing a previously unknown enzyme that is central to lignin synthesis. The breakthrough, which was recently published in Science, could improve the conversion of cellulosic — or nonfood — biomass to biofuels.

"This is the first new gene in the [lignin] pathway that's been discovered in ten years," says John Ralph, a professor in the UW-Madison departments of biochemistry and biological systems engineering and the leader of the GLBRC Plants Research Area.

"Any time you find a new gene, you not only better understand the biochemical pathways in which the gene is involved; you also discover new ways of perturbing those pathways," Ralph says.

Read the full article on GLBRC.org »