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Integrated control of polysaccharide and ligninbiosynthesis to improve cellulose content, availability and fibre quality

The proposal complies with the Common Agricultural Policy in the diversification of agriculture in the area of non-food and forage crops. It will lead to wealth-creating opportunities that are environmentally desirable in a number of developing industrial fields. It is designed as a core discovery programme using proteomics and will lead to gene isolation involved in the biosynthesis of cell wall lignins and hemicelluloses in the model species, tobacco. The influence of these components on fibre properties and cellulose availability will be determined in modified plants to define the limits to which they can be manipulated beneficially. These deliverables can be used to direct molecular breeding programmes and genetic modification to improve fibre, and will be extended to commercial species: poplar for biomass energy and improved pulping and papermaking, maize for improved forage digestibility, and flax for improved production of industrial fibre.

The essential purpose of the programme was the improvement of raw material quality for the non-food use of plant fibre for use in pulp and paper industry, textiles, composites for industry and biomass for energy. This will encourage diversification of agriculture. A second impact would also be indirectly in the food area as there is a need to improve forage digestibility in a number of crops. Basic research was proposed that would lead to an improvement of genetics resource controlling the nature of the non-cellulosic components of cell walls and its consequences on fibre properties and processing.

The identification of genes involved in hemicellulose biosynthesis indicated limitations in annotations based on the Arabidopsis genome and required protein characterisation to confirm identity. The utility of alternative model systems such as tobacco for functional characterisation of such genes was demonstrated. However attempts to manipulate xylans or glucomannans in woody tissues met with limited success.
The study also increased knowledge of the utility of lignin modification for many processes. By increasing knowledge and gene discovery in the pathway it has proved possible to compare manipulation lignin at the various levels of flux control, incorporation of monolignols and therefore the type of lignin structure, and regulation of polymerisation. A major conclusion of the programme is that a multidisciplinary analytical approach is necessary to appreciate the subtlety of the consequences of transgenic manipulation of lignin even down to the molecular level.
One of the commercial objectives was the improvement and consequent expansion of the use of maize as a forage crop. The spectacular power of mutator technology has been demonstrated in the present study with the identification of genes whose manipulation has potential for producing maize with quantifiable improvements to digestibility as a result of changes in arabinoxylan content.
Another commercial objective was the production of high cellulose content flax with modified accessibility properties. This will be brought about by improvements to the retting process or its replacement with more controlled and efficient processing, resulting in the consequent expansion of the industrial use of flax fibre as an indigenous EU crop.


Scientist responsible for the project

TW20 OEX Egham
United Kingdom (The) - GB

Phone: +44 1784 443553
Fax: +44 1784434326


Project ID QLRT-1999-31493
Organisation University of London, Division of Biochemistry
Area 5.1.1
Start date 01 January 2001
Duration (months) 30
Total cost 3 322 058 €
Total EC contribution   2 302 606 €
Status Completed

The partners

  • Flanders Interuniversity Institute for Biotechnology, Department of Plant Genetics, Belgium - BE
  • University of Edinburgh, Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology, United Kingdom (The) - GB

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