Scientists discover new 'architecture' in corn

January 21, 2019

New research on the U.S.'s most economically important agricultural plant - corn - has revealed a different internal structure of the plant than previously thought, which can help optimize how corn is converted into ethanol.

"Our economy relies on ethanol, so it's fascinating that we haven't had a full and more precise understanding of the molecular structure of corn until now," said LSU Department of Chemistry Assistant Professor Tuo Wang, who led this study that will be published on Jan. 21 in Nature Communications. "Currently, almost all gasoline contains about 10 percent ethanol. One-third of all corn production in the U.S., which is about 5 billion bushels annually, is used for ethanol production. Even if we can finally improve ethanol production efficiency by 1 or 2 percent, it could provide a significant benefit to society."

Wang and colleagues are the first to investigate an intact corn plant stalk at the atomic level using high-resolution techniques. The LSU team includes Postdoctoral Researcher Xue Kang and two graduate students, Malitha Dickwella Widanage from Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Alex Kirui from Nakuru, Kenya.

It has been previously thought that cellulose, a thick and rigid complex carbohydrate that acts like a scaffold in corn and other plants, connected directly to a waterproof polymer called lignin. However, Wang and colleagues discovered that lignin has limited contact with cellulose inside a plant. Instead, the wiry complex carbohydrate called xylan connects cellulose and lignin as the glue.

It has also been previously thought that the cellulose, lignin and xylan molecules are mixed, but the scientists discovered that they each have separate domains and these domains perform separate functions.

"I was surprised. Our findings actually go against the textbook," Wang said.

Lignin with its waterproof properties is a key structural component in plants. Lignin also poses a challenge to ethanol production because it prevents sugar from being converted to ethanol within a plant. Significant research has been done on how to break down plant structure or breeding more digestible plants to produce ethanol or other biofuels. However, this research has been done without the full picture of plants' molecular structure.

"A lot of work in ethanol production methods may need further optimization, but it opens doors for new opportunities to improve the way we process this valuable product," Wang said.

This means a better enzyme or chemical can be designed to more efficiently break down the core of a plant's biomass. These new approaches also can be applied to biomasses in other plants and organisms as well.

In addition to corn, Wang and his colleagues analyzed three other plant species: rice, switchgrass that is also used for biofuel production and the model plant species Arabidopsis, which is a flowering plant related to cabbage. The scientists found that the molecular structure among the four plants are similar.

They discovered this by using a solid state nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy instrument at LSU and at the National Science Foundation's National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee, Fla. Previous studies that used microscopes or chemical analyses have not shown the atomic-level structure of the native, intact plant cell architecture. Wang and his colleagues are the first to directly measure the molecular structure of these intact plants.

They are now analyzing wood from eucalyptus, poplar and spruce, which could help improve the paper production and material development industries as well.
-end-


Louisiana State University

Related Ethanol Articles from Brightsurf:

Spraying ethanol to nanofiber masks makes them reusable
A joint research team from POSTECH and Japan's Shinshu University evaluates the filtration efficiency of nanofiber and melt-blown filters when cleaned with ethanol.

Anaerobically disinfect soil to increase phosphorus using diluted ethanol
Anaerobic disinfection of soil is an effective method to kill unwanted bacteria, parasites and weeds without using chemical pesticides.

Fractionation processes can improve profitability of ethanol production
The US is the world's largest producer of bioethanol as renewable liquid fuel, with more than 200 commercial plants processing over 16 billion gallons per year.

Ethanol fuels large-scale expansion of Brazil's farming land
A University of Queensland-led study has revealed that future demand for ethanol biofuel could potentially expand sugarcane farming land in Brazil by 5 million hectares by 2030.

Measuring ethanol's deadly twin
ETH Zurich researchers have developed an inexpensive, handheld measuring device that can distinguish between methanol and potable alcohol.

Modified enzyme can increase second-generation ethanol production
Using a protein produced by a fungus that lives in the Amazon, Brazilian researchers developed a molecule capable of increasing glucose release from biomass for fermentation.

Scientists develop a chemocatalytic approach for one-pot reaction of cellulosic ethanol
Scientists at the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics (DICP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences have developed a chemocatalytic approach to convert cellulose into ethanol in a one-pot process by using a multifunctional Mo/Pt/WOx catalyst.

New core-shell catalyst for ethanol fuel cells
Scientists at Brookhaven Lab and the University of Arkansas have developed a highly efficient catalyst for extracting electrical energy from ethanol, an easy-to-store liquid fuel that can be generated from renewable resources.

Yeast makes ethanol to prevent metabolic overload
Why do some yeast cells produce ethanol? Scientists have wondered about this apparent waste of resources for decades.

Corncob ethanol may help cut China's greenhouse gas emissions
A new Biofuels, Bioproducts and Biorefining study has found that using ethanol from corncobs for energy production may help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in China, if used instead of starch-based ethanol.

Read More: Ethanol News and Ethanol Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.