Biotech Updates

Targeting Cell Wall’s Weak Spot to Produce Cost-Effective Biofuels

April 24, 2009

Researchers at the US Los Alamos National Laboratory have uncovered clues that may help them develop crops more suitable for cellulosic biofuel production. Paul Langan, Tongye Shen and colleagues discovered a weak spot in the cellulose armor that makes plant materials so tough. Wood and cellulosic plant materials, such as corn husks and switchgrass, are the most abundant form of feedstocks available for biofuel production. But turning biomass to alternative fuels is often cost-expensive and energy-consuming.

The plant cell wall is a large chemical lattice of simple sugars held together by chemical and electrostatic bonds. Hydrogen bonds, an attractive force between electronegative atoms, play a major role in keeping the lattice stable.

The researchers used neutrons to probe the crystalline structure of cellulose, the biopolymer that makes plant cell walls resistant to chemical digestion. They found that although cellulose generally has a well-ordered network of hydrogen bonds holding it together, the material also displays significant amounts of disorder, creating a different type of bond network at certain surfaces. Manipulating this weak spot might make the tenacious cellulose vulnerable to attack by digestive enzymes.

For more information, read The paper published by Biophysical Journal is available at