Biomass Corn EthanolResearchers have discovered the structure of the enzyme that makes cellulose — a finding that could lead to easier ways of breaking down plant materials to make biofuels and other products and materials.

Conducted at West LaFayette, Ind.-based Purdue University, the research also provides a detailed glimpse into the complicated process by which cellulose — the foundation of the plant cell wall and the most abundant organic compound on the planet — is produced.

"Despite the abundance of cellulose, the nitty-gritty of how it is made is still a mystery," said Nicholas Carpita, professor of plant biology. "Now we're getting down to the molecular structure of the individual enzyme proteins that synthesize cellulose."

Cellulose is composed of several dozen strands of glucose sugars linked together in a cable-like structure and condensed into a crystal. The rigidity of cellulose allows plants to stand upright and lends wood its strength.

The findings could be used to redesign the structure of cellulose for different material applications, say the researchers said. For example, cellulose — the base for many textiles such as cotton and rayon — could be modified to better absorb dyes without chemical treatments. The structure of cellulose also could be altered to break down more easily for the production of cellulosic biofuels.

Collaborators on the study include Anna Olek of Purdue's department of botany and plant pathology; Catherine Rayon of the University of Picardie Jules Verne; Lee Makowski of Northeastern University; and Daisuke Kihara of Purdue's department of biological sciences and the department of computer science. A paper based on their research was published in The Plant Cell.