Dundee biofuels research makes cover of Science magazine

6th Sep 2013

Research from the James Hutton Institute and the University of Dundee Division of Plant Sciences features on the front cover of this week’s Science Magazine. The work reports the discovery of a previously unrecognized enzyme in the pathway that synthesizes lignin, a polymer in plant cell walls which could signal a breakthrough in the production of biofuels.

Professor Claire Halpin and Dr Gordon Simpson have been collaborating on the characterisation of Arabidopsis mutants defective in lignin: Yuguo Xiao, a postdoctoral researcher in the Division of Plant Sciences, discovered a mutant with low levels of lignin, and when Yuguo left to take up a position in the US, Kasia Rataj continued with its characterisation.

Yuguo and Kasia had discovered an enzyme (called CSE) with no previously known connection to lignin. Collaborators in Ghent, Belgium, with expertise in metabalomics, revealed that this enzyme could carry out a crucial step in lignin biosynthesis, necessitating the first revision of the lignin biosynthesis pathway in a decade.

There is considerable commercial interest in modifying the lignin content of plant cell walls as a means to make more cellulose available for biofuel production. Accordingly, the Dundee and Ghent teams have filed a patent relating to this discovery. This study exemplifies how basic research in model systems continues to provide the fundamental knowledge that is the substrate for such translation.

The research was funded by Global Climate and Energy Project at Stanford University, who have just awarded a second three-year grant to Claire Halpin, Gordon Simpson and an international team of collaborators to continue to work with Arabidopsis in a related research area.

The work attracted widespread media interest when the manuscript first became available online in August. Read the previous news release Gene discovery opens new possibilities for biofuels here.

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