Changing cellulose-forming process may tap plants’ biofuel potential

Changing the way a plant forms cellulose may lead to more efficient, less expensive biofuel production, according to Penn State engineers. “What every biofuel manufacturer wants to do is to get to the sugars,” said Jeffrey Catchmark, associate professor of…

Changing the way a plant forms cellulose may lead to more efficient, less expensive biofuel production, according to Penn State engineers.

“What every biofuel manufacturer wants to do is to get to the sugars,” said Jeffrey Catchmark, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering. “But the structure of cellulose itself can be an obstacle.”
Catchmark said that most of a plant’s sugar-based energy is locked up in the crystalline structure of cellulose. To make cellulose, plants create long chains of sugar—glucose—that are then crystallized and densely packed into tight, ordered bundles resistant to water and other solvents. This bundling may help build strong plant cell walls, but biofuel makers must use extra effort to break down and separate the bundles and the crystalline cellulose to extract the sugars used to ferment fuels.
Using bacteria that produce cellulose as a model to test the process, the researchers discovered an approach for modifying cellulose synthesis in living plants for improved biofuel-making efficiency. During the synthesis process the researchers added glucomannan, a complex carbohydrate found in plants that sticks to cellulose, and found that it altered the structure and assembly of the cellulose, allowing it to be broken down more efficiently.
Another method to ensure the glucomannan is added during cellulose formation requires genetically engineering the plant to express or over-express the enzymes that form the glucomannan, according to the researchers, who applied for a provisional patent on the process.
“In our work, what we are interested in is whether we can improve digestibility by altering the crystal structure or by altering the bundle formation,” said Catchmark, who worked with Lin Fang, graduate student in agricultural and biological engineering.
By growing plants with cellulose that is less crystalized and that has fewer structured bundles, biofuel manufacturers will not need to spend as much time and effort breaking down these pre-treated plants, according to the researchers. Currently, biofuel manufacturers must use several industrial processes that are time- and energy-intensive and relatively expensive, including chemical, mechanical and fermentation, to break down the cellulose and separate other materials.
Catchmark said that biofuel manufacturers may be able to further optimize production processes to suit the modified plants for even greater efficiency.
“This will give biofuel makers more options,” Catchmark said. “Hopefully, you will need less effort and lower costs with the pre-treatment, but with improved conversion efficiency.”
Catchmark said that while the technique was used on bacteria, it could be adapted to various plant species because both plants and certain bacteria share similarities in how they create cellulose. He said that researchers could use the process in both grass and wood plant species, giving biofuel makers additional options. The researchers now plan to test the methods on plants.

Provided by

Pennsylvania State University

view popular

not rated yet

Related Stories

Chemists study mutated plants that may be better for biofuels

Feb 28, 2012

Genetic mutations to cellulose in plants could improve the conversion of cellulosic biomass into biofuels, according to a research team that included two Iowa State University chemists.

Nanostructure of cellulose microfibrils in spruce wood

Feb 17, 2012

Scientists at Institut Laue-Langevin in Europe recently described in PNAS the first detailed structure of cellulose fibres from any higher plant.

Plant protein shape puzzle solved by molecular 3-D model

Apr 15, 2013

(Phys.org) —Researchers from North Carolina State University believe they have solved a puzzle that has vexed science since plants first appeared on Earth.

Process can cut the cost of making cellulosic biofuels

Jan 22, 2009

A patented Michigan State University process to pretreat corn-crop waste before conversion into ethanol means extra nutrients don’t have to be added, cutting the cost of making biofuels from cellulose.

Recommended for you

Researchers find without microtubule guidance, cellulose causes changes in organ patterns during growth

14 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Mathematics is everywhere in nature, and this is illustrated by the spiral patterns in plants such as pine cones, sunflowers or the arrangement of leaves around a stem. Most plants produce a …

Europe needs genetically engineered crops, scientists say

Apr 25, 2013

The European Union cannot meet its goals in agricultural policy without embracing genetically engineered crops (GMOs). That’s the conclusion of scientists who write in Trends in Plant Science, a Cell Press …

Study by WPI professor produces first edition of a bookworm’s genome

Apr 25, 2013

It has co-existed quietly with humans for centuries, slurping up the spillage in beer halls and gorging on the sour paste used to bind books. Now the tiny nematode Panagrellus redivivus (P.redivivus) has emerged f …

Discovery of wound-healing genes in flies could mitigate human skin ailments

Apr 24, 2013

Biologists at UC San Diego have identified eight genes never before suspected to play a role in wound healing that are called into action near the areas where wounds occur.

User comments
More news stories

Research sheds light on how patterns form in bird feathers

(Phys.org) —A new study by scientists in the U.S. and Taiwan has shown that birds have colorful and patterned feathers because of specific cellular interactions involving stem cells rather than through …

Computer scientists suggest new spin on origins of evolvability

Scientists have long observed that species seem to have become increasingly capable of evolving in response to changes in the environment. But computer science researchers now say that the popular explanation …

Fish win fights on strength of personality

When predicting the outcome of a fight, the big guy doesn’t always win suggests new research on fish. Scientists at the University of Exeter and Texas A&M University found that when fish fight over food, …

Draft rule ends protections for gray wolves

Federal wildlife officials have drafted plans to lift protections for gray wolves across the Lower 48 states, a move that would end a decades-long effort that has restored the animals but only in parts of …

Great balls of iron: Researchers uncover clue to bird navigation

(Phys.org) —Every year millions of birds make heroic migratory journeys across oceans and continents guided by the Earth’s magnetic field. How they detect those magnetic fields has puzzled scientists for …

Physicists propose measure of macroscopicity; Schrodinger’s cat scores a 57

(Phys.org) —The size of an object can be measured in many ways, such as by its mass, volume, or even the number of atoms it contains. And when it comes to quantum physics, “macroscopic” objects are considered …

To win an election, a strongly connected voter network is key, physicists conclude

(Phys.org) —The results of a new study support what many people intuitively know about winning political elections: the party that has a more connected voter network usually receives more votes. However, …

The enemy of my friend: Altruistic punishment in humans called into question

(Phys.org) —That Homo sapiens exhibits both cooperative and competitive behavior is a topic that continues to be the subject of ongoing discussion. In terms of cooperation, altruism (a selfless type of prosocial behavior in whic …

Fusion and cell death in the development of skeletal muscle

(Medical Xpress)—Membrane fusion is a highly regulated event, both inside cells, and between them. From the moment a sperm first fuses with an egg, subsequent developmental events depend upon its proper …

Movement of pyrrole molecules defy ‘classical’ physics

(Phys.org) —New research shows that movement of the ring-like molecule pyrrole over a metal surface runs counter to the centuries-old laws of ‘classical’ physics that govern our everyday world.