Researchers look to unlock secrets of cellulose production

By Holly Jessen | December 27, 2012

Work to understand cellulose production at the University of Virginia School of Medicine that may help hospitals battle bacterial infections could also have a significant impact on advanced biofuel production.

University of Virginia researchers Jochen Zimmer, Jacob Morgan and Joanna Strumillo  wrote a paper entitled "Crystallographic snapshot of cellulose synthesis and membrane translocation." It was published online in December in the scientific journal Nature and will appear in an upcoming print edition.

In the paper, the researchers mapped out a three-dimensional architecture of the enzyme that produces cellulose. It revealed that new cellulose polymers are extruded through a channel from a cell, which they compared to a spider spinning silk. The research unlocked the previously unknown process, although the end result was understood. The enzyme produces cellulose polymers and pushes them outside the cell at the same time, which makes it unique. Typically, production and movement are either done separately or completed by different enzymes.

What does this mean for the medical field and biofuels? The findings may help control bacterial and prevent the spread of infections as cellulose is one of the components in bacteria that create coatings, or biofilms, that cling to surfaces. For example, the research could have applications in cleaning biofilms from surgical devices.

On the biofuel side, understanding how cellulose is produced and deposited could help lead to more efficient cellulosic ethanol production. “One argument would be that understanding how cellulose microfibrils are being formed might allow us to design/engineer plants with optimized cell walls for biofuel production,” Zimmer said. “However, this requires understanding the de-novo synthesis of individual cellulose polymers, as well as the organization of these chains into microfibrils (cable like structures consisting of up to 30-40 chains.)”

This paper looks at that first step, which researchers suspect is conserved by bacteria and plants. Taking it to the next level would involve studying how polymers come together to form microfibrils. “This research most likely will not provide a short term solution for making biofuel production more efficient,” he said, adding that it could have a significant impact in the long term.