New insights into how plants produce cellulose

Shawn Mansfield

New research from the University of British Columbia and partners sheds light on how plants produce cellulose, a compound found in plant cell walls. Cellulose is commonly used in products such as wood, paper, textiles, specialty chemicals, feed (for animals) and energy.

New research by Yoichiro Watanabe, Lacey Samuels, Shawn Mansfield and others could be harnessed by industry and plant breeders in the design or breeding of plants with superior cellulose properties and proportions.

Cellulose synthase complexes display distinct dynamic behaviors during xylem transdifferentiation” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

About the research

“Our work provides the principles for how plants change their capacity to produce cellulose and biomass. The detailed framework for how this change in synthesis occurs can now be used to help understand the intricacies of how cellulose deposition occurs in plants, as well as to strategically alter how plants produce cellulose.” said researcher Shawn Mansfield. “This information could be harnessed by both industry and plant breeders as a whole in the design or breeding of plants with superior cellulose properties and proportions. More specifically, plants that have a higher proportion of their biomass composed of cellulose, or cellulose that has its inherent polymeric attributes changed such that it confers new or better traits to final product; strength of wood, more amendable to the production of biofuels, or novel traits for the generation of cellulose-based nanocomposites, to mention only a few.”

About plant cellulose

The vast majority of plant biomass is composed of a lignocellulosic cell wall: a sugar-rich matrix that is encrusted in a polyphenolic call lignin. The sugar fraction of plant biomass consists largely of cellulose, a ubiquitous polymer made of glucose that is the most abundant biopolymer on earth. More importantly, cellulose is used by society in our daily lives, in the form of wood, paper, textiles, fiber, feed (for animals), specialty chemicals, and energy to name only a few. Equally important, it is the primary renewable resource that provisions several natural resource-dependent industries.

In plants, this abundant biopolymer is made at the plasma membrane, by a highly specific enzyme complex known as the cellulose synthase complex. During growth and development plants transition from the synthesis of an emergent and expanding primary cell walls to strong secondary cell walls, where the vast majority of the cellulose is deposited and consequently forms the foundation of all the natural products that underpin society. During this transition, the plant cells must also remodel, and this is achieved by changing the suite of cellulose synthase proteins/enzymes that form the machinery required to specifically deposit the cellulose in the secondary cell walls.  This group of researchers not only witnessed this happening in real time in plants, but also outlined the dynamic behaviour of this transition and the enzymes involved during the various stages of development.

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