More useful plants may sprout from gene role discovery

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - It may be possible to alter plants so they are more nutritious and easier to process without weakening them so much they fall over, according to Purdue University researchers who found a new twist in a plant formation biochemical pathway.

Decreasing the amount of two acids in plant cell walls may enhance livestock feed digestibility for better nutrition, while increasing the potential uses of various plants, said Clint Chapple, Purdue biochemistry professor.

The findings, published in a recent issue of The Plant Cell, revise scientific thinking about the role of ferulic and sinapic acids in building plant cell walls. For many years, researchers believed that the two acids contributed to the production of lignin, the principal structural component of plant cell walls.

"It's the hardening substance that makes the difference between a piece of celery and a piece of wood," Chapple said.

Based on laboratory studies, Chapple and his team found that an enzyme converts two molecules into the acids, which then are incorporated into cell walls. This indicates that sinapic and ferulic acids are end products rather than intermediates, or building blocks, in an essential biochemical pathway for cell wall construction, Chapple said.

"Now that we know the acids are not part of the lignin pathway, it may be possible to change cell walls without harming the plant," he said. "It will be easy to isolate and alter the corresponding gene in other plants, including those used for livestock feed such as corn."

The main focus of the research is to create more useful plants. In normal plants, cross linking of lignin, ferulic acid and other substances forms a strong bond that make cell walls difficult to break down.

But Chapple said he believes that cell walls could be manipulated so that nutrients in livestock feed are more easily absorbed into the digestive tract.

One clue that led Chapple's team to its

Contact: Susan A. Steeves
Purdue University

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