Lignin Discovery Plumps Biomass

This notsomething that is too compelling, but we are slowly learning to maximize the biologicaloutput of an acre of land for a whole range of possibly usefulcharacteristics. 

It is notobvious that we are really going to ever want a lot of lignin, as there arealternatives that are clearly as attractive in terms of putative applications.

There may besome virtue in producing denser corn stalks as possibly improved silage and intime an ample source of feedstock for biochar production. 

Agricultural discovery could mean more biomassfrom the same sized field
15:17December 31, 2010

Lignin (blue) in a regular Arabidopsis stem at left, and ina modified plant's stem at right (Image: Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation)

Biofuel derived from cropssuch as switchgrass certainly holds promise, although some critics maintainthat such crops use up too much agricultural land – land that could otherwisebe used for growing food crops. A genetic discovery announced this Tuesday,however, reportedly allows individual plants to produce more biomass. Thismeans that biofuel crops could have higher yields, without increasing theiragricultural footprint.

The research was conducted atthe Plant Biology Division of Oklahoma’s SamuelRoberts Noble Foundation. There, Dr. Huanzhong Wang discovered agene that controls the production of lignin within the stems of Arabidopsis and Medicago truncatula, plants that arecommonly used in genetic studies. Lignin is a compound that adds strength toplant cell walls, which gives stems their rigidity. When Wang removed the gene,there was a marked increase in the production of lignin and other biomassthroughout the plants’ stems.

"In switchgrass, as theplant matures, the stem becomes hollow like bamboo," said divisiondirector Richard Dixon. "Imagine if you use this discovery to fill thathollow portion with lignin. The potential increase in biomass in these newplants could be dramatic. This technology could make plants better suited toserve as renewable energy sources or as renewable feedstocks to produceadvanced composite materials that consumers depend on every day."

Further research withassociates at the University of Georgia revealed thatby removing the gene, production of cellulose and hemicellulose material in thestem was also increased. These carbohydrate-rich compounds, when converted tosugars, are used to create advanced biofuels like cellulosic-derived ethanol orbutanol.

Ironically, most genetic researchregarding lignin has involved trying to lessen its production, in order to make grazing crops morepalatable for livestock.

The findings were recently published in thejournal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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