Bio4Energy researchers Edouard Pesquet and Delphine Ménard in the laboratory at the Umeå Plant Science Centre in Sweden, checking on some of the proteins they found. Photo by Bio4Energy.
Plant biologists have long tried to come up with a method for making trees produce large amounts of easily extractable biomass for making renewable products such as biofuels and "green" chemicals. Indeed, international conferences such as Lignin 2014 have seen scores or well-respected scientists—biologists and chemists alike—brood the reasons why successful attempts to increase biomass production have led to the making of sample plants whose stems and branches sag in sad poses or to increased difficulty at the steps of extracting and separating the main components of wood: cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin.
Whereas most of these attempts were aimed at trying to increase the production of biomass within the plant cell, a team of scientists based in Sweden and the UK came up with the idea to try to lay bare the processes responsible for the organisation of the cells in the plant's secondary cell wall. Thus the focus is no longer on maximising biomass production, but rather on finding out the exact way in which a plant goes about building its cell walls from within and who is responsible for doing what in that process. The researchers found as many as 605 proteins hard at work, performing specific and mostly non-overlapping tasks to control aspects of the cell wall's organisation such as its thickness, homogeneity, cortical position and patterns.