Center to investigate plant cells

By Lisa Gibson
Web exclusive posted May 5, 2009, at 1:13 p.m. CST

The newly funded Center for Lignocellulose Structure and Formation at Pennsylvania State University will be home to investigations into plant cells to produce better biomass fuels. The U.S. DOE will fund the center with $21 million for over five years as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, according to the university.

Daniel Cosgrove, a professor of biology, will direct the center in its efforts to increase knowledge of the physical structure of biopolymers in plant cell walls-cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin-and improve methods for the conversion of plant biomass to fuel, according to the university. Jeffrey Catchmark, a professor of agricultural and biological engineering, will serve as associate director.

"It's fundamental research to help understand the structure and formation of this material," Cosgrove said.

Nanoscale investigations of lignocellulose-the part of the plant made up of biopolymers-will reveal the rules and principles behind how the plant manufactures those biopolymers. Researchers will look for the "rules of assembly" for the plant wall, including cellulose synthesis, lignocellulose assembly and the relationship between nano-scale structure and macro-scale properties, according to the university.

Research conducted at the center will be distributed among its 18 labs and researchers, said Cosgrove, who hopes to begin by Aug. 1.
Materials such as cellulose and lignin make up wood, paper, cotton and other everyday materials, according to Cosgrove, and represent a huge untapped reserve of biorenewble energy.

"Our new center will try to pry loose the secrets of how these molecules interact to form these substances that have so many practical uses as an energy source and a material," Cosgrove said.

The lignocellulose center is one of 46 DOE Energy Frontier Research Center facilities formed nationwide to address issues in fields ranging from solar energy and electric storage to materials sciences, biofuels and carbon capture and sequestration, according to the university.