In a recent research project, scientists at DOE (US Dept of Energy) identified an enzyme responsible for the formation of suberin, which is the woody, waxy, cell wall substance that makes up cork. Suberin controls water and nutrient transportation in plants and keeps pathogens out. The idea is to adjust the permeability of plant tissues by genetic manipulation, leading to easier production of crops that could be used for biofuels. Suberin is mostly found in the cell walls of seed and root systems qne moderates substances that pass into the organisms, acting as a barrier to harmful substances while encouraging the intake of water and other nutrients. It also aids in the storage of fluids.

What this boils down to is that suberin can be used to encourage the growth of plants for biofuels, including plants that have been hard to cultivate. It could be used to modify plants so that their production is greater and easier. Many plants that have been isolated for use as biofuels are agriculturally demanding and land amassing.

In this experiment, the scientists analyzed a strain of Arabidopsis that had been genetically modified to disrupt the expression of a gene that codes for an enzyme known as hydroxyacid
hydroxycinnamoyltransferase (HHT).  Chemical analysis showed that “knocking out” the HHT gene led to a deficiency of suberin phenolics, indicating that HHT is the enzyme responsible for biosynthesis of the polymer. The scientists then isolated the gene and expressed it in bacteria to further characterize its function.

It was also demonstrated that the HHT-deficient plants were much more permeable to salt in solution than their wild-type counterparts. This finding, together with the constant presence of suberin in plant root tissues that control water and salt uptake, suggests that suberin plays an important role in the adaptation of plants to their terrestrial habitats. Translation: Suberin, found in cork, makes plants more adaptable and easier to cultivate.

If they get a handle on the mechanism responsible for suberin production they might be able to create crops tailored to thrive in specific environments. This means harsh environments, which have been a roadblock to growing plants that can produce economically efficient biofuels. If certain breeds can be created that are more adept at absorbing and storing water and nutrients, then crops could be grown in dry or arid climates, perhaps even in the desert. If they could make use out of the currently unusable vast landscapes that comprise our deserts, then the aerable land used for more delicate food crops could be spared. As well, the current finding that modifications in suberin phenolic production can alter plants’ tolerance to salt suggests that this might also help create crops that can grow in salty conditions. This means agricultural use for currently useless land on our coasts.

This is a fantastic step forward in the science of creating plants for biofuels. It makes use of currently unviable lands, frees up aerable land for food crops and promises the proliferation of genetically modified, non food, crops for use as sustainable biofuels. Looks like a win-win to me!

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