Plant cells, like these in wheat, are surrounded by thick walls where energy is locked up. (Rowan Mitchell/Rothamsted Research)
Researchers with the UK's Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) Sustainable Bioenergy Center (BSBEC) have discovered a family of genes that could help breed grasses with improved properties for bioenergy.

The research was carried out by a team from the University of Cambridge and Rothamsted Research, which receives strategic funding from BBSRC.

The genes are important in the development of the fibrous, woody parts of grasses, like rice and wheat. The team hopes that by understanding how these genes work, they might be able to breed varieties of crops whose straw requires less energy-intensive processing in order to produce biofuels.

Most of the energy stored in plants is contained within the woody parts, and billions of tons of this material are produced by global agriculture each year in growing grass crops, but this energy is tightly locked away and hard to get at. This research could offer the possibility of multi-use crops where the grain could be used for food and feed and the straw used to produce energy efficiently.

"What we hope to do with this research is to produce varieties of plants where the woody parts yield their energy much more readily - but without compromising the structure of the plant. We think that one way to do this might be to modify the genes that are involved in the formation of a molecule called xylan - a crucial structural component of plants," explains Professor Paul Dupree of the University of Cambridge.

Xylan is an important, highly-abundant component of the tough walls that surround plant cells. It holds the other molecules in place and helps make a plant robust and rigid. Grasses contain a substantially different form of xylan than other plants. The team wanted to find out what was responsible for this difference and so looked for genes that were turned on much more regularly in grasses than in the model plant Arabidopsis. Once they had identified the gene family in wheat and rice, called GT61, they were able transfer it into Arabidopsis, which in turn developed the grass form of xylan.


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