New discovery may improve biofuel processing
Biofuels created from cultivated crops like trees and grasses show great promise as a carbon-neutral source of ethanol, but converting plants into fuel that might be used to power automobiles or create heat for homes has proven difficult. Millions of years of evolution have made plants resistant to breakdown, and the sugars needed for fermentation into ethanol are locked inside their complex cell walls.
But Tan and Mohnen are hopeful that their discovery combined with additional research will reveal many of the secrets of plant cell wall architecture and function, making them easier to break down or perhaps opening the doors for engineered plants that will work better as a feedstock for the biofuels industry and as better agricultural products.
"The applications that will emerge from this discovery are enormous," said Mohnen. "It's all going to stem from a refined understanding of how plants are put together and how they are made, but once we know that, we can start modifying them to make them perform in ways that are most advantageous to us."
"We've only just scratched the surface," she said. "But once we investigate this further and we understand the plant exceptionally well, the sky's the limit."
The research was funded through grants from the National Science Foundation and by the BioEnergy Science Center.