Washington, March 2 : New research has revealed that the first step in building new cell walls in plants is the assembly of a scaffold made of structural proteins, which could lead to engineered plants that are better materials for biofuels production and can aid in nanotechnology as well.
Conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the research determines that the assembling of a scaffold made of structural proteins is a process similar to using a metal or wood scaffold to construct the walls of a building.
When plant cells divide, they assemble molecular building blocks into new cell walls made of carbohydrate and protein, but scientists know almost nothing about how this process occurs.
But the new finding by the research team would help to unlock the secret of this process, leading to better materials for the production of biofuels such as ethanol from cellulose - plant fibers that are a cheaper and more plentiful alternative to the starches currently used.
"Plant cell walls are the most abundant biomass on Earth," said Maura Cannon, a professor in the biochemistry department. "If we know how the cell wall assembles, we can exploit this information to engineer plants with cell wall structures and compositions that are commercially desirable," she added.
Nanotechnology, which depends on molecules that can assemble themselves into an organized structure without external direction, is another field that could benefit from this finding.
According to Cannon, "The structural proteins in plant cell walls know how to self-assemble. They do it all the time."
"Since the most abundant proteins on Earth can self-assemble, we should be able to figure out how the process works. Such knowledge will be fundamental to the success of the emerging nanotechnology industry," he said.
Though Cannon's research is based on Thale Cress, a flowering weed from the mustard family that is common in North America, it can be applied to any plant, since structural proteins are part of the cell wall of all plant species.
"Once we know which parts of the molecule are most important, and determine how they affect the cell wall, we could make synthetic extensins that produce designer plants with a cell wall composition and structure that meets the needs of industry," he said.