Research may offer big benefits for biofuels and battling infections

Dec 14, 2012

(Phys.org)—Researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine have deciphered the secrets of the production of cellulose, the most common natural polymer on Earth, in a discovery that could have major ramifications for both biofuel production and the battle against bacterial infections.

The findings are of particular interest to the federal , which is seeking ways to break down plant cells more easily to facilitate the production of biofuels. Understanding the production and of cellulose, the primary component of plants' cell walls, may lead to new ways to tear it down or create plants with weaker walls.

Similarly, the U.Va. findings may offer new targets for battling and preventing the spread of infections. Cellulose is one of the components that bacteria produce to create strong, spongy coatings – called "biofilms" – that allow them to clump together and cling to surfaces. The plaque that forms on teeth, for example, is a .

"If we can prevent biofilm formation, we would expect to make it easier to get rid of the bacteria – to actually kill it," U.Va. researcher Jochen Zimmer said. "And you could also prevent them from adhering to the surgical devices and other tools used in hospitals."

In a paper published Dec. 9 in the online edition of the journal Nature, the U.Va. researchers map out the three-dimensional architecture of the enzyme complex responsible for cellulose production. The researchers first determined the components necessary to produce and secrete cellulose and then solved the structure of the enzyme complex. Their study reveals how new cellulose polymers are extruded from a cell through a channel, a bit like a spider spinning a thread of , and how this process is intimately linked to the formation of cellulose.

Until now, the end result was understood, but the process itself was largely unknown.

The enzyme is unique in that it both produces cellulose polymers (by attaching molecules) and pushes them outside the cell simultaneously; usually the division of labor is different, with production and movement either handled separately or handled by different enzymes.

"By capturing the crystal structure of part of a protein complex that both synthesizes and transfers cellulose out of a bacterium one sugar unit at a time, this work provides a window into the details of a unique cellular mechanism," says Pamela Marino of the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which partly funded the work. "A similar process is likely at work in the synthesis and secretion of key carbohydrate polymers in other organisms, such as hyaluronan in mammals."

In building a three-dimensional model of the atomic architecture, the U.Va. team members were surprised to observe what they had thought almost impossible: They had captured an image of a new cellulose being synthesized and transported from the inside of a cell to the outside. This was most unexpected, both because the process is transitory and because the submicroscopic imaging required – a combination of X-ray diffraction and advanced math – can work only with an extremely stable and uniform ensemble of proteins.

Zimmer expects U.Va.'s findings to be significant both to biofuel production and the field of medicine, but its impact could reach even farther. He says the U.Va. team plans to extend its research to look at the biosynthesis of chitin, an essential component of the shells of insects. Preventing the formation of chitin, he says, could make for a very effective form of pest control.

The U.Va. paper, "Crystallographic snapshot of synthesis and membrane translocation," written by Jacob L.W. Morgan, Joanna Strumillo  and Zimmer, was published online by Nature and will appear in a forthcoming print edition. It is the second article U.Va.'s Department of Molecular Physiology and Biological Physics has had published in Nature since Nov. 15.

Explore further: Fighting the Colorado potato beetle with RNA interference

More information: www.nature.com/nature/journal/… ull/nature11744.html

Related Stories

CSI at the service of cellulose synthesis

Jul 20, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Grains, vegetables and fruit taste delicious and are important sources of energy. However, humans cannot digest the main component of plants - the cellulose in the cell wall. Even in ruminants, ...

Formation of cellulose fibers tracked for the first time

Apr 20, 2006

Cellulose--a fibrous molecule found in all plants--is the most abundant biological material on Earth. It is also a favored target of renewable, plant-based biofuels research. Despite overwhelming interest, ...

Cellulose breakdown

Jun 24, 2011

Ionic liquids have emerged as promising new solvents capable of disrupting the cellulose crystalline structure in a wide range of biomass feedstocks.

Recommended for you

Living in the genetic comfort zone

5 hours ago

The information encoded in the DNA of an organism is not sufficient to determine the expression pattern of genes. This fact has been known even before the discovery of epigenetics, which refers to external ...

Better genes for better beans

10 hours ago

Some of the most underappreciated crops could soon become the most valuable tools in agriculture with new research from the Centre for Underutilised Crops at the University of Southampton. Coordinator Mark Chapman has created ...

Aggressive plant fungus threatens wheat production

10 hours ago

The spread of exotic and aggressive strains of a plant fungus is presenting a serious threat to wheat production in the UK, according to research published in Genome Biology. The research uses a new survei ...

A taxi ride to starch granules

12 hours ago

Plant scientists at ETH have discovered a specific protein that significantly influences the formation of starch in plant cells. The findings may be useful in the food and packaging industries.

Lager yeast ancestors were full of eastern promise

13 hours ago

There are few drinks as iconic as a 'pint of the black stuff'. It might, therefore, surprise beer connoisseurs to learn that the DNA of the all-important brewing yeast – the building blocks of the perfect Stout – is the ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.