NREL Researchers Use Imaging Technologies to Solve Puzzle of Plant Architecture
Breakthrough could help optimize capture of sugars for biofuels
November 26, 2012
Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the BioEnergy Science Center (BESC) combined different microscopic imaging methods to gain a greater understanding of the relationships between biomass cell wall structure and enzyme digestibility, a breakthrough that could lead to optimizing sugar yields and lowering the costs of making biofuels.
A paper on the breakthrough, “How Does Plant Cell Wall Nanoscale Architecture Correlate with Enzymatic Digestibility?” appears in the current issue of Science Magazine.
Principal Investigator Dr. Shi-You Ding of NREL said the imaging technologies allowed the interdisciplinary team of scientists to view the plants’ architecture at scales ranging from millimeter to nanometer, a range of 1 million to one.
That allowed them to learn not just the plant cell wall architecture, but also the localization of the enzymes responsible for deconstruction of the cell wall polymers and the effects of enzyme action on the cell wall.
They didn’t have to resort to wet chemistry, which ascertains the molecular makeup of a substance at the cost of destroying the spatial relationships. “The typical way to understand the structure of biomass is to break down all the individual components so they can be analyzed,” Ding, a biologist, said. “The problem with that method is that then you don’t know where all the components came from. You lose the structural integrity.”