Labavitch Lab

Cell wall metabolism and the production of biofuels.
  In the last few years, increasing fuel costs and concerns about global warming have led to an explosion of interest in the generation of liquid fuels from plant-generated molecules.  In addition to efforts to make use of plant organs that accumulate lipid, there is also considerable interest in fermenting the sugars that are locked into plant polysaccharides (either stored starch or the variety of cell wall polymers) to produce ethanol and other portable, combustible liquid molecules.  The major limitation for using cell wall polysaccharides as a source of fermentable sugars is that these polymers are not readily converted to monosaccharides.  However, as discussed above, pathogens and insects produce a variety of CWDPs whose biological functions are the digestion of lignocellulose to provide them with metabolizable sources of carbon (i.e., "biofuels" for the pathogens and insects).  Thus, our work on biofuels is mostly based on exploiting the biochemical understanding of cell wall metabolism that we have obtained in our studies of plants, microbes and insects in order to carry out a more efficient and economically viable bioconversion of cell wall polysaccharides to fermentable sugars.   The potential biofuels feedstock organisms we are working with include wheat and rice, wastes produced during the processing of sugar beets, tomatoes etc., and unicellular green algae.  In our project with wheat and rice, we also are attempting to identify the genes that encode important polysaccharide biosynthetic enzymes so that we can manipulate the synthesis and assembly of cell walls so that a crop plant with a more "bioconversion compliant" cell wall structure can be grown.        

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