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Gene discovery opens new possibilities for biofuels

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"This makes CSE a promising target for tailoring a wide range of biomass feedstocks for a bio-based economy.

Adoption of biofuels as a viable alternative to fossil fuels has been limited due to the conflicting pressures of using food sources for fuel, but that situation could be transformed thanks to the discovery of a gene in the biosynthetic pathway of lignin. Lignin is a major component of plant secondary cell walls that limits the conversion of biomass to energy and the breakthrough, reported this week in Science Express, paves the way for new initiatives supporting a biofuel-based economy.

To understand how plant cells can deliver fuel or plastics, a basic knowledge of a plant’s cell wall is needed. A plant cell wall mainly consists of lignin and sugar molecules such as cellulose. Cellulose can be converted to glucose which can then be used in a classical fermentation process to produce alcohol, similar to beer or wine making.

Lignin is a kind of cement that embeds the sugar molecules and thereby gives firmness to plants. Thanks to lignin, even very tall plants can maintain their upright stature.

Unfortunately, lignin severely reduces the accessibility of sugar molecules for biofuel production. The lignin cement has to be removed via an energy-consuming and environmentally unfriendly process. Plants with a lower amount of lignin or with lignin that is easier to break down can be a real benefit for biofuel and bioplastics production. The same holds true for the paper industry that uses the cellulose fibres to produce paper.

Using the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana, researchers from the James Hutton Institute, the University of Dundee, VIB and Ghent University (Belgium) and the University of Wisconsin (USA) have identified a new enzyme caffeoyl shikimate esterase (CSE). This enzyme fulfils a central role in lignin biosynthesis; knocking-out the CSE gene resulted in 36% less lignin per gram of stem material. Additionally, the remaining lignin had an altered structure. As a result, the direct conversion of cellulose to glucose from un-pretreated plant biomass increased four-fold, from 18% in the control plants to 78% in the CSE mutant plants.

These new insights can now be used to screen natural populations of energy crops such as poplar, eucalyptus, switchgrass or other grass species for a non-functional CSE gene. Alternatively, the expression of CSE can be genetically engineered in energy crops. A reduced amount of lignin or an adapted lignin structure can contribute to a more efficient conversion of biomass to energy.

“This finding was quite unexpected because the lignin pathway has been widely examined and, it had been thought for the past decade or so, completely mapped,” said Professor Claire Halpin, of the University of Dundee. “However, we have now uncovered this enzyme which represents a new step on the pathway and a very important one.

“It looks like it could be very useful in trying to manipulate plant biomass to generate biofuels and other chemicals from non-food crops. Our studies showed that in the plant we studied – Arabidopsis – those with mutated CSE were able to release around 75% more sugars from cellulose without needing harsh chemical treatments.

Dr Gordon Simpson, of the James Hutton Institute, said, “This makes CSE a promising target for tailoring a wide range of biomass feedstocks for a bio-based economy.

The research was co-financed by the multidisciplinary research partnership ‘Biotechnology for a sustainable economy’ of Ghent University, the DOE Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center and the ‘Global Climate and Energy Project’ (GCEP). Based at Stanford University, the Global Climate and Energy Project is a worldwide collaboration of premier research institutions and private industry that supports research on technologies that significantly reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, while meeting the world’s energy needs.

“This exciting, fundamental discovery provides an alternative pathway for altering lignin in plants and has the potential to greatly increase the efficiency of energy crop conversion for biofuels," said Sally M. Benson, director of Stanford University's Global Climate and Energy Project. "We have been so pleased to support this team of world leaders in lignin research and to see the highly successful outcome of these projects.

Notes to editors

Paper: Vanholme, R. Cesarino, I., Rataj, K., Xiao, Y., Sundin, L., Goeminne, G., Kim, H., Cross, J., Morreel, K., Araujo, P., Welsh, L., Haustraete, J., McClellan, C., Vanholme, B., Ralph, J., Simpson, G.G., Halpin, C., Boerjan, W. 2013. Caffeoyl Shikimate Esterase (CSE) Is an Enzyme in the Lignin Biosynthetic Pathway. Science Express.

The University of Dundee is internationally recognised for its excellence in life sciences and medical research with particular expertise in cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, neuroscience, skin diseases and plant sciences. The University has a top-rated medical school with research expanding from "the cell to the clinic to the community", while the College of Life Sciences is home to some of the world's most cited scientists and more than 800 research staff from 60 different countries. Dundee was voted best in the UK for student experience in the 2012 Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey. See for further details.

VIB is a non-profit research institute in life sciences. About 1,300 scientists conduct strategic basic research on the molecular mechanisms that are responsible for the functioning of the human body, plants, and microorganisms. Through a close partnership with four Flemish universities − UGent, KU Leuven, University of Antwerp, and Vrije Universiteit Brussel − and a solid funding program, VIB unites the forces of 76 research groups in a single institute. The goal of the research is to extend the boundaries of our knowledge of life. Through its technology transfer activities, VIB translates research results into products for the benefit of consumers and patients and contributes to new economic activity. VIB develops and disseminates a wide range of scientifically substantiated information about all aspects of biotechnology. More information:

After more than twenty years of uninterrupted growth, Ghent University is now one of the most important institutions of higher education and research in the Low Countries. Ghent University yearly attracts over 30,000 students, with a foreign student population of over 2,200 EU and non-EU citizens. Ghent University offers a broad range of study programmes in all academic and scientific branches. With a view to cooperation in research and community service, numerous research groups, centres and institutes have been founded over the years. More info:

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is a public, land-grant institution located in Madison, Wisconsin. Recognised as one of America’s great universities in both achievement and prestige, UW-Madison offers a complete spectrum of liberal arts studies, professional programs and student activities. The university is the only academic institution to host one of the three US Department of Energy (DOE) Bioenergy Research Centers, which were funded to make transformational breakthroughs that will form the foundation of new cellulosic biofuels technology. The Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) is led by UW-Madison with Michigan State University as the major partner. GLBRC’s additional scientific partners include DOE National Laboratories, other universities and a biotechnology company. For more information, please visit

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The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.