Cell wall secrets could unlock plant potential

U.K. researchers say figuring this puzzle out could improve hunt for traits

Bagasse, as the leftover crushed stalks of sugar cane are known, may some day be converted to biofuels due to research into plant cell walls.

We’ve gone a long way in recent years unlocking the genetic potential of plants — but mainly the focus has been on seeds and fruits.

Now researchers from Britain’s University of York and Quadram Institute say they’re unlocking the genetic secrets of plant cell walls, which could help improve the quality of some plant-based foods.

They’re using high-tech tools like a microarray that’s been dubbed a ‘lab-on-a-chip’ to sample and compare thousands of plant cell samples simultaneously to gain a whole lot of data that reveals how cell walls are arranged.

They then linked this information back to particular changes in genetic information between the different varieties of plant cell, using a technique called association mapping.

“Plant cell walls are made up of sugars, which can be arranged into a myriad of different carbohydrates that determine cell wall properties in subtly different but significant ways,” says research scientist Ian Bancroft, of University of York.

“Variations in these sugars alter the properties of the plant, by affecting how it grows, or how it defends against pests and diseases. They also affect the properties of materials that we derive from plants.”

The researchers say that, using the genetic markers identified using this new technique, breeders will be better able to breed for varieties that may be more nutritious, or enhance how waste parts of the plant could be converted to biofuels or other biopolymers.

That may open the door for long-sought processes such as cellulosic ethanol that could see products like sugar cane and cornstalks replacing ethanol made with food crops.

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