Discovery may pave way to genetically enhanced biofuel crops

Dec 20, 2012
This shows principal investigator Henrik Scheller and first author April Liwanag. Credit: Henrik Scheller

Best known for its ability to transform simmering pots of sugared fruit into marmalades and jams, pectin is a major constituent of plant cell walls and the middle lamella, the sticky layer that glues neighboring plant cells together. Pectin imparts strength and elasticity to the plant and forms a protective barrier against the environment. Several different kinds of pectic compounds combine to form pectin. The relative proportion of each of these depends on the plant species, location within the plant, and environment. Pectic compounds decorated with β-1,4-galactan (a chain of six-carbon sugars) are of considerable interest to the biofuels industry, because six-carbon sugars are readily converted into ethanol (biofuel) by fermenting microorganisms. A new study published in The Plant Cell reveals a novel enzyme involved in the production of β-1,4-galactans. This enzyme may be used to engineer plants with more desirable attributes for conversion to biofuel.

The major enzymes that catalyze pectin production are hard to pin down. Close to 70 enzymes are predicted to underlie pectin synthesis in ; only about three of these have been identified definitively. Knowledge of these enzymes could be used to boost the production of pectins with desirable characteristics.

A team of researchers at the Joint BioEnergy Institute, University of California, Berkeley, and Technical University of Denmark set out to identify the enzymes that catalyze the production of β-1,4-galactan. They screened a database of enzymes for galactosyltransferases, the enzymes that link six-carbon galactose sugars into a chain. They found a family of proteins, named GT92, that are present in some animals and all plants sequenced to date. The authors found that mutations in each of the three genes encoding the GT92 proteins in the Arabidopsis led to a reduction in β-1,4-galactan, whereas producing more of one of these proteins led to a 50% increase in β-1,4-galactan levels. In many cases, modifying the composition of wall components leads to alterations in growth or stature. Strikingly, all of the plant lines overproducing this important six-carbon sugar appeared to be healthy. Biochemical tests of the enzymatic properties of purified Arabidopsis GT92 protein supported the hypothesis that GT92 proteins are important enzymes for β-1,4-galactan synthesis in plants. This means that crops engineered to produce increased levels of GT92 proteins might contain more easily fermentable sugars, thereby potentially boosting the efficiency of production.

JBEI researchers generated Arabidopsis plants that overexpressed a GT92 enzyme, resulting in a a 50-percent increase in the amount of in the plant cell walls. Credit: Image courtesy of Scheller and Liwanag

According to lead scientist Henrik Scheller, "Bioenergy crops with high β-1,4-galactan content would have significant advantages for the biofuels industry and we now have the knowledge to specifically increase β-1,4-galactan content in the biomass of cell walls. This breakthrough was made possible by a collaboration involving members of the Feedstocks Division at JBEI and our collaborators in Denmark. We are very excited about this result and look forward to testing it in a crop such as switchgrass or poplar trees".

Explore further: Can tapioca replace corn as the main source for starch sweeteners?

More information: Liwanag, A.J.M., Ebert, B., Verhertbruggen, Y., Rennie, E.A., Rautengarten, C., Oikawa, A., Andersen, M.C.F., Clausen, M.H., and Scheller, H.V. (2012). Pectin Biosynthesis: GALS1 in Arabidopsis thaliana is a β-1,4-Galactan β-1,4-galactosyltransferase. Plant Cell 10.1105/tpc.112.106625. www.plantcell.org/content/earl… .112.106625.abstract

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Sweet success for sustainable biofuel research

Jan 25, 2010

Scientists have found a way to increase fermentable sugar stores in plants which could lead to plant biomass being easier to convert into eco-friendly sustainable biofuels. Their research is highlighted in the latest issue ...

Recommended for you

Project launched to study evolutionary history of fungi

6 hours ago

The University of California, Riverside is one of 11 collaborating institutions that have been funded a total of $2.5 million by the National Science Foundation for a project focused on studying zygomycetes – ancient li ...

Different watering regimes boost crop yields

9 hours ago

Watering tomato plants less frequently could improve yields in saline conditions, according to a study of the impact of water and soil salinity on vegetable crops.

Woolly mammoth genome sequencer at UWA

11 hours ago

How can a giant woolly mammoth which lived at least 200,000 years ago help to save the Tasmanian Devil from extinction? The answer lies in DNA, the carrier of genetic information.

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Caliban
not rated yet Dec 20, 2012

Simply applying the rubric "for use as a biofuel feedstock" doesn't lessen the danger inherent in introducing these novel GMO organisms into the environment.

But there's money to be made, so damn the consequences.