WASHINGTON, March 7, 2012- Genetic mutations to cellulose in plants could improve the conversion of cellulosic biomass into biofuels, according to a multi-field research team.

The team recently published its findings in the online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They studied Arabidopsis thaliana, a common model plant in research studies, and its cellulose synthase membrane complex that produces the microfibrils of cellulose.

The microfibrils form the basic structure of plant cell walls. The ribbons of cellulose are made of crystallized sugars and the crystal structure makes it difficult for enzymes to break down the cellulose to the sugars that can be fermented into alcohol for biofuels. The research team, assembled by Seth DeBolt, an associate professor of horticulture at the University of Kentucky, is assigned to determine if genetic mutations in the plant membrane complex could produce what the researchers have called "wounded" cellulose that's not as crystalline and therefore easier to break down into sugar.

Mei Hong, an Iowa State chemistry professor and an associate with the DOE’s laboratory in Ames, Iowa, used her lab's solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance technology to study the cell walls created by the mutated system.

"We found that the crystalline cellulose content had decreased in the mutant cell walls," Hong said. "We can quantify the degree of change, and be very specific about the type of change."

Hong said the findings suggest the genetic mutations did create differences in cellulose production and formation, and could be more efficiently processed into the sugars necessary for biofuel production. The study said developing techniques to modify the structure of plant cellulose in crops for better and easier conversion to fermentable sugars “could be transformative in a bio-based economy.”

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