Thursday, September 25, 2014 - 11:45am

The complexity of natural materials has long been a point of fascination for scientists, and has only increased as the technology to look closer has itself evolved. The structure and development of sea shells, for example, holds great potential for nanotechnology and building light weight materials of great strength. So, too, the cell walls of plants, whose flexibility and strength depend on two critical proteins. Now UGA scientists have discovered how these fundamental components of plant life might one day help scientists engineer improved plants for biofuels, construction materials, medicine and food production:

"The scientific community has identified a large number of proteins that the plant uses to assemble its cell walls, but it has been very difficult to identify those few proteins that are directly involved in the construction of key polysaccharides like xylan," said Will York, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in UGA's Complex Carbohydrate Research Center and principal investigator of a CCRC research team that recently published the paper describing its results in The Plant Journal.

"The work we've done gives us the fundamental knowledge we need to manipulate plants for industry and agriculture," said York, who is a member of the Bioenergy Science Center, a partnership of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the University of Georgia and other university and industry partners. It is one of three bioenergy research centers established by the Department of Energy in 2007 to accelerate progress toward development of liquid biofuels that add an affordable, sustainable, domestically produced option to the nation's energy supply.

Understanding how and why plants don't make enough xylan and so do not grow normally and thus cannot transport life-giving water from the roots to the leaves is potentially major breakthrough. The complexity evinced by millions of years of evolution holds unlimited promise, and as scientists continue to unlock different rooms in the grand, mysterious mansion of life on Earth, unimaginable connections, products and processes become possible. The force of great research is as humbling as the wonders of life it seeks to understand. Congratulations to the teams at the CCRC and the national research centers who support their work. 

Image: Electron micrograph scan shows a dried film of polymeric xylan isolated from Arabidopsis thaliana stems.