Discovery of new enzyme could yield better plants for biofuel

Photo of John RalphFor nearly a decade, scientists have thought that they understood how plants produce lignin — a compound that gives plant tissues their structure and sturdiness, but can limit their use as a source of biofuels.

Now, thanks to a collaboration involving the U.S. Department of Energy Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) and several international institutions, researchers have identified a new gene responsible for producing a previously unknown enzyme that is central to lignin synthesis. The breakthrough, which was recently published in Science (6 Sept. 2013, vol 341 #6150), could improve the conversion of cellulosic ? or nonfood ? biomass to biofuels.

“This is the first new gene in the [lignin] pathway that’s been discovered in ten years,” says John Ralph, a professor in the UW-Madison departments of biochemistry and biological systems engineering and the leader of the GLBRC Plants Research Area.

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