Nick Carpita, Purdue plant biologist, will head the investigation of the formation, development and growth of plant cell walls. The research team will include scientists from Purdue, the University of Florida, University of Connecticut, University of Wisconsin and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a Department of Energy contract facility based in Golden, Colo.
"This project is to determine the function of all the genes involved in plant cell walls," said Carpita, professor of botany and plant pathology. "If we learn the way cells stick to each other, we may be able to control the softening of fruits and vegetables -- increase the shelf life."
They also may be able to increase food-derived health benefits, such as those found in oat and barley products, which have the ability to lower serum cholesterol and reduce diabetic insulin demand. These grains contain certain plant polysaccharides -- groups of nine or more simple sugars linked together -- such as beta glucan. But only one group of plants has beta glucans, Carpita said.
"If we learn how these polysaccharides are synthesized, or if we can prevent their degradation during seed formation, we might be able to improve glucan content in rice, wheat and corn, grains that are particularly low in that particular polymer," he said.
Cell walls are composed of polymers, or chains of molecules, that assemble into very complex structures. Many products people use daily are made of plant cell wall material.
"You're writing on one (paper); you're sitting on another (wooden chair)," Carpita said. "You probably enclosed your house using a lot of wood products, which are pretty much plant cell wall."