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Biofuel Biochemistry Can Beat the Food vs Fuel Dilemma

Scientists have identified new steps in the way plants produce cellulose, the component of plant cell walls that provides strength and forms insoluble fibre in the human diet. The findings may lead to improved cellulose production, and guide plant breeding for specific uses such as wood products and cellulosic ethanol fuel.

Published in Nature Communications (, the research identified several proteins that are essential in the assembly of the protein machinery that makes cellulose. “We found that these assembly factors control how much cellulose is made, and so plants without them cannot produce cellulose very well and the defect substantially impairs plant biomass production,” says Prof Staffan Persson of The University of Melbourne.

“The ultimate aim of this research would be to breed plants that have altered activity of these proteins so that cellulose production can be improved for the range of applications that use cellulose, including paper, timber and ethanol fuels.

The newly discovered proteins are located in the cell’s Golgi apparatus, where proteins are sorted and modified. “If the function of this protein family is abolished, the cellulose-synthesising complexes become stuck in the Golgi and have problems reaching the cell surface, where they normally are active,” said lead authors Drs Yi Zhang (Max-Planck Institute) and Nino Nikolovski (University of Cambridge).

“The findings are important to understand how plants produce their biomass,” said Prof Paul Dupree of the University of Cambridge. “Greenhouse gas emissions from cellulosic ethanol, which is derived from the biomass of plants, are estimated to be roughly 85% less than from fossil fuel sources. Research to understand cellulose production in plants is therefore an important part of climate change mitigation.

“In addition, by using cellulosic plant materials we get around the problem of the food-versus-fuel scenario that is problematic when using corn as a basis for bioethanol. It is therefore of great importance to find genes and mechanisms that can improve cellulose production in plants so that we can tailor cellulose production for various needs.”