Plant genetic engineering for biofuel production towards affordable cellulosic ethanol, Notas de estudo de Engenharia de Produção

Plant genetic engineering for biofuel production towards affordable cellulosic ethanol, Notas de estudo de Engenharia de Produção

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Finite petroleum reserves and the increasing demands for energy in industrial countries have created inter- national unease. For example, the dependence of the United States on foreign petroleum both undermines its economic strength and threatens its national security1. As highly populated countries such as China and India become more industrialized, they too might face similar problems. It is also clear that no country in the world is untouched by the negative environmental effects of petroleum extraction, refining, transportation and use. For these reasons, governments around the world are increasingly turning their attention to biofuels as an alternative source of energy.

The biofuel that is expected to be most widely used around the globe is ethanol, which can be produced from abundant supplies of biomass from all land plants and plant-derived materials, including animal manure, starch, sugar and oil crops that are already used for food and energy. In addition, ethanol has a low toxic- ity, is readily biodegradable and its use produces fewer air-borne pollutants than petroleum fuel. The growth of feedstock crops for bioethanol production also reduces greenhouse gas levels, mainly because of the use of atmospheric carbon dioxide in photosynthesis. Although the conversion of biomass to ethanol and the burning of ethanol produce emissions, the net effect can be a large reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared with petroleum fuel, meaning that the use of bioethanol does not contribute to an increase in net atmospheric carbon dioxide2.

Starch- and sugar-derived ethanol already make a relatively small but significant contribution to global energy supplies. In particular, Brazil produces relatively cheap ethanol from the fermentation of sugarcane sugar to supply one quarter of its ground transportation fuel. In addition, the United States produces ethanol from corn grain. However, even if all the corn grain produced in the United States were converted into ethanol, this could only supply about 15% of that country’s transportation fuels. Meeting US fuel requirements using starch would mean that corn grain production must be increased or corn grain be diverted from other uses. For example, 50.8% of total US corn grain production is currently used for livestock feed3, and the conversion of corn grain into ethanol has already increased the prices of meat and dairy products.

The future production and use of ethanol that is obtained from cellulosic matter, supplemented by grain ethanol, has been predicted to decrease the need for petroleum fuel1. The main advantages of using cellu- losic matter over starch and sugar for ethanol include the abundant supply of cellulosic biomass as compared with the limited supplies of grain and sugar. In addi- tion, starch and sugar that are used for the production of ethanol compete with food supplies. Therefore, it is advantageous to use non-food crops and the waste from food crops for bioethanol production. Furthermore, the use of cellulosic biomass allows bioethanol production in countries with climates that are unsuitable for crops such as sugarcane or corn. For example, the use of rice

Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan 48824, USA. e‑mail: doi:10.1038/nrg2336

Plant genetic engineering for biofuel production: towards affordable cellulosic ethanol Mariam B. Sticklen

Abstract | Biofuels provide a potential route to avoiding the global political instability and environmental issues that arise from reliance on petroleum. Currently, most biofuel is in the form of ethanol generated from starch or sugar, but this can meet only a limited fraction of global fuel requirements. Conversion of cellulosic biomass, which is both abundant and renewable, is a promising alternative. However, the cellulases and pretreatment processes involved are very expensive. Genetically engineering plants to produce cellulases and hemicellulases, and to reduce the need for pretreatment processes through lignin modification, are promising paths to solving this problem, together with other strategies, such as increasing plant polysaccharide content and overall biomass.


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Middle lamella




Primary wall

Plasma membrane


Cellulose microfibril


Soluble protein

Middle lamella

Primary wall




Nature Reviews | Genetics



Secondary wall (S3)

Secondary wall (S2)

Secondary wall (S1)

Primary wall

Middle lamella

Plasma membrane Secondary wall

straw for the production of ethanol is an attractive goal given that it comprises 50% of the word’s agronomic biomass.

Serious efforts to produce cellulosic ethanol on an industrial scale are already underway. notably, in 2006, US president George w. Bush announced the goal of reducing 30% of foreign oil requirements by 2030 by using crop biomass for biofuel production. As a result, the Department of energy announced the funding of three major biofuel centres and the establishment of six cellulosic ethanol refineries, which, when fully opera- tional, are expected to produce more than 130 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol per year3,4, other than the Canadian Iorgen plant, no commercial cellulosic ethanol plant is yet in operation or under construction. However, research in this area is underway and funding is becom- ing available around the world for this purpose, from both governmental and commercial sources. For exam- ple, British Petroleum have donated half a billion dol- lars to US institutions to develop new sources of energy — primarily biofuel crops.

Presently, several problems face the potential com- mercial production of cellulosic ethanol. First, the high costs of production of cellulases in microbial bioreactors. Second, and most important, are the costs of pretreating

lignocellulosic matter to break it down into intermedi- ates and remove the lignin to allow the access of cellu- lases to biomass cellulose. These two costs together make the price of cellulosic ethanol about two to three-fold higher than the price of corn grain ethanol. Plant genetic engineering technology offers great potential to reduce the costs of producing cellulosic ethanol. First, all neces- sary cell-wall-degrading enzymes such as cellulases and hemicellulases could be produced within the crop bio- mass so there would be no need, or only minimal need, for producing these enzymes in bioreactors. Second, plant genetic engineering technology could be used to modify lignin amount and/or configuration in order to reduce the needs for expensive pretreatment proc- esses. Finally, future research on the upregulation of cel- lulose and hemicellulose biosynthesis pathway enzymes for increased polysaccharides will also have the potential to increase cellulosic biofuel production.

In this review, I first provide an overview of the process of cellulosic ethanol production, including a brief description of the nature of the plant cell wall as a source of biomass, and the enzymes that are used in the cellulosic conversion process. I then focus on the potential for plant genetic engineering to overcome the challenges described above.

The basics of cellulosic ethanol production Feedstock crops and lignocellulosic biomass. The factors that affect the suitability of potential new feedstock crops around the globe for bioethanol production are complex, and relate to country- and region-specific agricultural practices, market forces, and political as well as biologi- cal issues. These factors include land availability, locally accepted cropping systems, and types and forms of transportation fuel. In addition, the current status of a particular species in terms of its development as a crop (for example, the development of breeding strategies) is another important issue; in terms of biology, the feedstock crops that have so far been recommended for conversion to cellulosic ethanol have a high amount of cellulosic biomass. These include corn, rice, sugarcane, fast-growing perennial grasses such as switchgrass and giant miscanthus, and woody crops such as fast-growing poplar and shrub willow5,6. Depending on where they are planted, the ideal characteristics of non-food cel- lulosic crops are: use of the C4 photosynthetic pathway; long canopy duration; perennial growth; rapid growth in spring (to out-compete weeds); high water-usage efficiency; and possibly partitioning of nutrients to subterranean storage organs in the autumn.

The source of lignocellulosic biomass is the plant cell wall (FIG. 1), which has important roles in determin- ing the structural integrity of the plant, and in defence against pathogens and insects7. The structure, configura- tion and composition of cell walls vary depending on plant taxa, tissue, age and cell type, and also within each cell wall layer8,9. The basic structure of the primary cell wall is a scaffold of cellulose with crosslinking glycans, and there are two types of primary cell wall, which are classified according to the type of crosslinks. Type I walls are present in dicotyledonous plants and consist of equal

Figure 1 | Plant plasma membrane and cell-wall structure. a | Cell wall containing cellulose microfibrils, hemicellulose, pectin, lignin and soluble proteins. b | Cellulose synthase enzymes are in the form of rosette complexes, which float in the plasma membrane. c | Lignification occurs in the S1, S2 and S3 layers of the cell wall.


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amounts of glucan and xyloglucan embedded in a matrix of pectin. Type II walls are found in cereals and other grasses, have glucuronoarabinoxylans as their crosslink- ing glucans, and lack pectin and structural proteins7. Polysaccharides, such as cellulose, hemicellulose and pectin (BOX 1), are abundant in plant primary cell walls and can be hydrolysed to provide fermentable sugars for bioethanol production. They contain various com- binations of constituent sugars, all of which are initially produced from glucose7.

The plant secondary cell wall contains cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin (BOX 1). The cellulose micro- fibrils of the secondary cell wall are embedded in lignin, and in this context function like steel rods embedded in concrete, but with less rigidity. In tree trunks, there are three layers of secondary cell wall, which are called the S1, S2 and S3 lamellae, resulting from different arrange- ments of cellulose microfibrils. The S1 layer is the outermost layer, is produced first and contains helices of microfibrils. The S2 and S3 are the inner layers and have no helices.

The cellulosic ethanol production process. To produce cellulosic ethanol, lignocellulosic biomass is harvested from the feedstock crop, compacted (fresh or dry) and transported to a cellulosic ethanol refinery where it is stored, ready for conversion. The biomass is then pre- treated with extreme heat and/or chemically in order to break it down into intermediates and remove the lignin; this is followed by detoxification, neutralization and separation into its liquid and solid components. The latter are then hydrolysed using enzymes that are pro- duced in microbial bioreactors from bacteria or fungi. Finally, sugars are separated and fermented to produce ethanol (FIG. 2).

Cell-wall-deconstructing enzymes. Cell-wall polysac- charides can be converted into fermentable sugars through enzymatic hydrolysis using enzymes such as cellulases and hemicellulases (BOX 2). lignin is the main barrier to such conversion as it prevents cell-wall hydrolysis enzymes from accessing polysaccharides10,11. Therefore, heat and/or chemical pretreatment proc- esses are being developed and used to break down cell walls into intermediates and remove lignin to allow the exposure of cellulose to cellulases. These enzymes are produced naturally by a range of microbial species. As biofuels research increases in the twenty-first century, an increasing number of bacteria and fungi will be studied for their ability to convert cell-wall polysac- charides into fermentable sugars for biofuels. Many cell-wall-deconstructing enzymes have been isolated and characterized, and more are under investigation, particularly with the hope of finding more enzymes that can resist higher conversion temperatures and a range of pHs during pretreatment — presently the two most important limiting factors in the production of cellulosic ethanol. At present, commercial cellulases are produced as a combination of microbial enzymes. A future goal is the commercial production and use of hemicellulases to increase the output of five- and six-carbon fermentable sugars. Certain commercial hemicellulases are available, but are not suitable for biofuel production.

Genetic manipulation of feedstock crops Genetic engineering of most food crop species is well established, using either Agrobacterium tumefaciens or gene-gun-mediated gene transfer. Among biomass feed- stock crops, rice, maize, sorghum, poplar and switch- grass12 are efficiently transformable at commercially acceptable levels. In terms of other relevant species, Agrobacterium has been known to genetically transform dicotyledonous crops (including fast-growing woody plants such as willow and poplar), which are natural hosts for Agrobacterium. Although Agrobacterium does not infect monocotyledonous plants such as cereals and perennial grasses in nature, certain strains have been shown to transform rice, corn, wheat, barley, sorghum and switchgrass.

whether Agrobacterium or gene-gun transforma- tion is used, the main challenge is genotype-nonspecific genetic transformation of these crops: among many species and cultivars, generally only one or two are ideal

Box 1 | Key components of the plant cell wall

cellulose Plants produce about 180 billion tons of cellulose per year globally, making this polysaccharide the largest organic carbon reservoir on earth76. Cellulose makes up 15–30% of the dry mass of primary and up to 40% of secondary cell walls, where it is found in the form of 30 nm diameter microfibrils. Each microfibril is an unbranched polymer with about 15,000 anhydrous glucose molecules that are organized in β‑1,4 linkages (that is, each unit is attached to another glucose molecule at 180° orientation). The microfibrils are lined up parallel to each other and consist of crystalline regions, within which cellulose molecules are tightly packed. Cellulose also has amorphous or soluble regions, in which the molecules are less compact, but these regions are staggered, making the overall cellulose structure strong7. So far, cellulose is the only polysaccharide that has been used for commercial cellulosic ethanol production, probably because it is the only one for which there are commercially available deconstructing enzyme mixtures.

Hemicellulose Cellulose microfibrils are coated with other polysaccharides such as hemicellulose or xyloglucans. All dicotyledonous cell walls and about half of monocotyledonous ones consist mainly of xyloglucans. However, in the commelinoid monocotyledons, such as cereals and other grasses, cell walls mostly consist of glucuronoarabinoxylans. Depending on the plant species, 20– 40% of the plant cell‑wall polysaccharides are hemicellulose. Like cellulose, hemicellulose could be converted into fermentable sugars by enzymatic hydrolysis for the production of cellulosic ethanol.

Pectin About 35% of dicotyledonous plant dry matter is made up of pectin, a mixed group of various branched, hydrated polysaccharides that are abundant in galacturonic acid. Pectin is mostly made up of homogalacturonan, rhamnogalacturonan I, rhamnogalacturonan II, arabinans, galactans and arabinogalactans7. Pectin polysaccharide has roles in forming connections between plant cells, adjusting pH and ion balance, recognizing foreign molecules to alert the cell to the presence of microorganisms or insects, and establishing cell‑wall porosity77,78. Pectin is not considered important for the production of cellulosic ethanol.

Lignin Lignin is a major constituent of secondary cell walls, and accounts for about 10–25% of total plant dry matter. Lignin is composed of a complex of phenylpropanoids (aromatic compounds) linked in a network to cellulose and xylose with ester, phenyl and covalent bonds7. Neither the mechanism of association of lignin with cell‑wall polysaccharides nor the lignin biosynthetic pathway is well understood35. Lignin has an important role in protecting the plants against invasion by pathogens and insects, and lignin deposition is thought to be increased in response to attack by these invaders10.


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Product recovery

Nature Reviews | Genetics

Feedstock crop production

Compaction, transportation and storage

Pretreatment processing

Fermentation of hemicellulose sugars

Fermentation of cellulose sugars

Solid and liquid separation

Enzymatic hydrolysis of cellulose and hemicellulose

Detoxification and neutralization

Production of enzymes in bioreactors

Ethanol Residue recovery for co-products

candidates for genetic transformation. For example, among all switchgrass genotypes, only two cultivars can be efficiently genetically engineered. The biologi- cal basis of this issue is not well understood, but could partly be due to the transformability of the targeted in

vitro explants. For example, a system has been developed for the genetic transformation of a range of different cultivars of cereal crops (such as maize, oat and barley) by gene-gun bombardment of multiple meristem pri- mordial explants13 A similar system might enable the genetic transformation of a wider range of cultivars of switchgrass and other perennial grasses.

Breeding strategies are also likely to have an impor- tant part in the improvement of relevant feedstock spe- cies for cellulosic bioethanol production. Food and feed crops have been improved from their wild ancestors for many decades through breeding for better seed yields and resistance to biotic and abiotic factors. The newly emerging biomass crops such as switchgrass and mis- canthas are essentially wild populations, and like food and feed crops they require years of traditional breed- ing and related molecular approaches such as genetic markers and genome mapping. Along these lines, it is encouraging to note that sequencing of the switchgrass genome by the joint Genome Institute is pending.

Production of hydrolysis enzymes in plants At present, plant cell-wall hydrolysis enzymes are expensively produced in microbial bioreactors for commercial use. Plants are already used industrially for the production of enzymes and other proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, industrial polymers and phar- maceuticals14–16. expertise is available for plant genetic transformation, farming of transgenic crops and har- vesting, transporting and processing the plant matter16. Attention is now turning to the heterologous expression of plant cell-wall-deconstructing enzymes in plants so that they can be produced more cheaply for use in cel- lulosic hydrolysis.

Cell-wall hydrolysis enzymes can potentially be produced in all feedstock crops that are to be used for cellulosic ethanol production. The plant-based produc- tion of these enzymes has a crucial advantage, in that growing transgenic plants in the field requires a much lower energy input than microbial production of these enzymes. As many of the cell-wall hydrolysis enzymes

Box 2 | Cell-wall-deconstructing enzymes

cellulases Three types of cellulase are needed to deconstruct cellulose into glucose. These include endoglucanase (E1; E.C., exoglucanase or cellobiohydrolase (E.C., and β‑glucosidase (E.C.,79. In the hydrolysis process, endoglucanase first randomly cleaves different regions of crystalline cellulose, producing chain ends. Exoglucanase then attaches to the chain end and threads it through its active site, cleaving off cellobiose units. The exoglucanase also acts on regions of amorphous cellulose with exposed chain ends without the need for prior endoglucanase activity. Finally, β‑glucosidase breaks the bonds between the two glucose sugars of cellobiose to produce monomers of glucose80. Hemicellulases For cellulases to access cellulose, the hemicellulose surrounding it must be removed. While cellulose consists of a single monosaccharide and type of bond, hemicelluloses are amorphous and diverse. Since the main constituent of hemicellulose is β‑1,4‑xylan, the most abundant class of hemicellulase is xylanase, which can have both endo‑ and exo‑ activity80.

Ligninases Lignin degradation by microorganisms is poorly understood. The most effective lignin‑degrading microbes in nature are thought to be white rot fungi81, especially Phanerochaete chrysosporium and Trametes versicolour. The three main families of lignin‑modifying enzymes that are produced by fungi are laccases, manganese‑dependent peroxidases and lignin peroxidases82–84.

Figure 2 | Overview of cellulosic ethanol production. Flow chart showing the steps in the production of cellulosic ethanol from feedstock crops.


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identified so far are of bacterial origin, codon alteration of the coding region is usually needed to ensure efficient expression in plants; this is a straightforward procedure that is widely used for the heterologous expression of microbial proteins in eukaryotes. Another potential issue is misfolding of the enzymes in their new environment, a point that is explored below.

when expressed in plants, accumulation of the cell- wall hydrolysis enzymes in subcellular compartments is preferred over their accumulation in cytosol. when targeted for accumulation in subcellular compartments, these enzymes are more likely to display correct folding and activity, glycosylation, reduced degradation and increased stability, as compared to production and accu- mulation in the cytosol14,17. The heterologous enzymes can be extracted from fresh or dry transgenic crop biomass as part of the plant total soluble protein (TSP), which can then be added to pretreated crop biomass for conversion into fermentable sugars18–20. extraction of TSP from fresh or dry matter is quick and easy, and could be included in ethanol production facilities. However, research is needed to determine the stability of the biological activity

of extracted plant-produced hydrolysis enzymes in TSP when stored under freeze conditions for different periods of time before their use in hydrolysis.

Two other important and related areas for further research are increasing the levels of production and the biological activity of the heterologous enzymes. For example, the e1 enzyme from Acidothermus cellulolyticus has been produced in rice at almost 5% plant TSP and in maize at about 2% TSP, but these levels need to be increased to about 10% TSP for complete hydrolysis without the need for addition of microbially produced endoglucanase. It has been shown that expressing just the catalytic domain of these enzymes results in a higher level of expression (TaBle 1). Another method of increasing the level of enzyme production is to genetically engineer the chloroplast genome instead of the nuclear genome. Because the chloroplast genome of most flowering plants is maternally inherited, chloroplast transgenesis also provides the benefit of transgene containment, which is important for crops with out-crossing wild relatives. Genetic transformation of chloroplast genomes is now possible in most dicotyledonous crops, including poplar.

Table 1 | Heterologous expression of cell-wall-deconstructing enzymes in plants

Plant transgenic enzyme subcellular storage compartment


Arabidopsis thaliana Acitothermus celluluolyticus E1CAT Apoplast 25

Tobacco A. celluluolyticus E1 and E1CAT Apoplast 79,85

Tobacco A. celluluolyticus E1 Endoplasmic reticulum 85

Tobacco Clostridium thermocellum XynZ Apoplast 86

Tobacco A. celluluolyticus E1 Chloroplast 85,87

Tobacco Maize β‑glucosidase Chloroplast 42

Tobacco A. celluluolyticus E1 CAT Chloroplast 79

Tobacco Thermomonospora fusca E2 and E3 Cytosol 88

Tobacco Trichoderma reesei CBH1 Cytosol 89

Tobacco Human β‑glucosidase Cytosol 90

Tobacco C. thermocellum XynA CAT Cytosol 91

Tobacco A. cellulolyticus E1 Cytosol 18,27

Potato A. celluluolyticus E1 Apoplast 27

Potato Streptomyces olivaceoviridis XynB Apoplast 92

Potato A. celluluolyticus E1 Chloroplast 87

Potato A. celluluolyticus E1 Vacuole 87

Potato T. fusca E2 Cytosol 38

Potato T. fusca E3 Cytosol 88

Potato S. olivaceoviridis XynB Cytosol 92

Alfalfa T. fusca E2 and E3 Cytosol 88

Rice A. celluluolyticus E1CAT Apoplast 20

Rice C. thermocellum XynA CAT Cytosol 93

Barley Rumen Neocallimastix patriciarum XynA Cytosol 94

Maize A. celluluolyticus E1CAT Apoplast 95

Maize A. celluluolyticus E1CAT Apoplast 19 E1, E2 and E3, endoglucanases (endocellulases); CAT, catalytic domain; XynA, XynB and XynZ, xylanases (hemicellulases); CBH1, celluobiohydrolase 1.


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However, chloroplast transgenesis of most cereal and perennial grass feedstock crops is not yet an easy task21, in part because cereal crops cannot be regenerated from leaf or cotyledon explants. efforts made in this regard have resulted in the ability to achieve heteroplastomic chloroplast transformation (in which a fraction of the chloroplasts in a single plant are transformed). other than for poplar22, homoplasmic chloroplast transforma- tion (in which every chloroplast carries the transgene) is not yet possible for any feedstock biomass crop.

The subcellular targeting of heterologously expressed hydrolysis enzymes is important for several reasons. Such targeting keeps the foreign enzymes away from cytoplas- mic metabolic activities, avoiding potential damage. It also allows higher levels of enzyme accumulation and can increase enzyme stability through reduced exposure to proteases. Targeting can also enable better folding of proteins in subcellular compartments where there are molecular chaperones, and keeps the cell-wall degrading enzymes away from host cell walls. retention signal pep- tides have been characterized for targeting plant proteins to the endoplasmic reticulum (er), the apoplast, chlo- roplasts, vacuoles and mitochondria. These subcellular compartments have various features that make them more or less desirable for the accumulation of differ- ent proteins. For example, increased protein folding and assembly, and high levels of protein accumulation have been achieved by targeting heterologous antibod- ies to the secretory pathway instead of allowing them to remain in the cytosol23. The er is an excellent potential compartment for the targeting of cell-wall-deconstructing proteins: it has an oxidizing environment and is abun- dant in molecular chaperones, with few proteases15. In addition, studies have shown that proteins are more stable when they are retained in the lumen of the er, causing 2–10-fold greater activity compared with when they are secreted in the cytosol24.

other factors that might affect the levels of biological activity of heterologous enzymes need further investi- gation. For example, the importance of matching the optimal pH of the targeted enzymes with the pH of their targeted compartment is currently unclear. It is possible to produce biologically active enzymes in certain subcel- lular compartments, and directly use these enzymes for hydrolysis upon their extraction from transgenic plants. It is also possible to produce the hydrolysis enzymes in compartments in which they might lose biological activity, but then to activate these enzymes by chemical treatments during extraction. As pH is one of the factors required for the biological activity of enzymes, it might be difficult to exactly match the pH needed for ideal bio- logical activity of certain enzymes in certain subcellular compartments. For example, the pH of chloroplasts is around 7.5 at night and 8.0 during the day14, and there- fore the enzymes accumulated in chloroplasts might not always have the same biological activity.

Several microbial hydrolysis enzymes have already been produced in plants through subcellular targeting (TaBle 1). However, most research has been performed on tobacco and alfalfa, which are not feedstock biofuel crops. As indicated above, the cytosol might not be an

ideal location for the accumulation of heterologous mol- ecules because of potential interference with metabolic activities. The apoplast has been selected in many cases, assuming that this compartment is the most spacious and therefore capable of accumulating large quantities of heterologous proteins25. However, this compartment is of most use for the accumulation of hydrolysis enzymes that are thermophilic (biologically active at higher tem- peratures). Should the heterologous enzymes become active at in situ temperatures, the enzymes would degrade plant cell walls before lignification. Targeting the same enzyme to several compartments in the same plant might increase the level of enzyme production, as shown for xylanase targeting to either chloroplasts or peroxisomes individually compared with its production in both compartments in the same plant26.

Another important factor to be considered in this respect is the bioconfinement of genetically engineered biomass crops. For example, plants could be genetically engineered in a tissue-specific manner under regulation of the rubisco promoter so that hydrolysis enzymes are not produced in seeds, flowers and roots27. Several other methods of bioconfinement could be used to produce genetically engineered biomass crops while avoiding concerns about the transfer of transgenes from geneti- cally modified crops to their cross-breedable relatives through pollen flow21.

Increasing plant cellulosic biomass Increasing cell-wall polysaccharide content. Functional genomics and mutant studies have played important parts in the identification of genes that are involved in both cellulose (BOX 3) and hemicellulose biosynthesis. Although cellulose biosynthesis has been studied for decades, most steps in this pathway are not yet well understood28–33. For example, even in studies of model plants such as Arabidopsis thaliana, most of the cellu- lose biosynthesis pathway enzymes have been identified based on hypothetical modelling, without confirmation that they actually have the roles that are shown in BOX 3. Current understanding of the hemicellulose biosynthe- sis pathway is even less complete. Future studies will be geared towards an improved understanding of the bio- synthesis of these plant cell-wall polysaccharides, and towards their genetic manipulation to increase polysac- charides for improved cellulosic biofuel production. recent large grants for biofuel research such as those from British Petroleum are aimed at these issues.

Increasing the overall biomass. Increased overall feedstock biomass could also be achieved by geneti- cally modifying feedstock plants. This could include modification of plant growth regulators. For example, transgenic hybrid poplar with increased gibberelin bio- synthesis displayed improved growth and an increase in biomass34, probably owing to the effects of gibberelin on plant height. There are also several other potential routes to increasing overall plant biomass35. Assuming there are no limitations to the supplies of water, fer- tilizer or sunlight, feedstock biomass is the product of the solar radiation over the cropping duration, corrected


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Nature Reviews | Genetics





Cellulose glucan chain

Sitosterol cellodextrins




Korrigan cellulase

CesAi glucosyltransferase


Glucokinase ATP




UGT UDP -Glucose


Antisense oligonucleotides Short synthetic pieces of DNa  that are designed to bind to  their target mRNa through  base pairing. as a result, they  inhibit the expression of the  target mRNa, causing  inhibition of translation,  splicing or transport of the  target mRNa, or degradation  of the DNa–RNa hybrid by  RNase H.

RNA interference In RNai, long double-stranded  RNas (dsRNas of around  >200 nt) are used to silence  the expression of specific  target genes. long dsRNas are  first processed into 20–25 nt  small interfering RNas   (siRNas) by the Dicer RNase   III-like enzyme. SiRNas   then assemble into  endoribonuclease-containing  RNa-induced silencing  complexes (RISCs), and  subsequently guide RISCs   to complementary RNa  molecules, which they cleave  and destroy.

by the amount of intercepting crop canopy, where the solar light energy is converted into plant dry matter. other factors are also important contributors to overall biomass: carbon allocation36; uptake of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and other resources; utilization of nutrients, oxygen and water; respiration; and the synchronization of the circadian clock and external light–dark cycle37. An important direction for future research will be a better understanding of these factors in order to find potential targets for genetic manipulation for increased biomass.

one study involving genetic manipulation has pro- duced promising results towards the goal of increasing biomass in a relevant crop plant. A key enzyme for starch biosynthesis in endosperm, ADP-glucose pyro- phosphorylase (AGP), was expressed at higher levels by using an endosperm-specific promoter in rice. This caused an unexpected 20% increase in plant biomass38. How the increase in the biological activity of AGP increased the overall rice biomass is unclear. Similarly, whether manipulations of other enzymes that are asso- ciated with starch biosynthesis would shift energy from starch biosynthesis to overall biomass production, and at what level such a shift might become harmful to seed development and viability, are questions that remain to be investigated.

Decreasing the need for pretreatment Lignin modification. Downregulation of lignin biosyn- thesis pathway enzymes (FIG. 3) to modify the chemical structures of lignin components and/or reduce plant lignin content is an important potential way to reduce pretreatment costs in bioethanol production from cellu- losic biomass39. lignin is derived from three precursors — paracoumaryl, coniferyl and sinapyl alcohols — that are synthesized in separate but interconnected pathways35. As the question marks in the pathway show (FIG. 3), there are important gaps in our knowledge of lignin biosyn- thesis. However, despite these limitations, significant progress has been made towards genetically engineer- ing plants to modify lignin composition and content to improve cellulosic ethanol production and costs.

lignin genetic modification was initially of interest for other industrial applications, such as to increase digestibility and decrease the necessity for bleaching in the paper industry40–42. Downregulation of lignin biosyn- thesis enzymes was initially performed using antisense  oligonucleotides; however, RNa interference (rnAi) tech- nology has also been used for this purpose.

Downregulation of 4-coumarate 3-hydroxylase (C3H) in alfalfa (Medicago sativa) resulted in a dra- matic shift in the lignin profile and consequent altered lignin structure43, causing improved digestibility of

Box 3 |Cellulose biosynthesis

Cellulose synthesis involves several steps. First, glucokinase utilizes water soluble α‑d‑glucose and one phosphate molecule of an ATP molecule to produce α‑d‑glucose‑6‑phosphate, which is converted by phosphoglucomutase (PGM) to α ‑d‑glucose‑1‑phosphate. Following this step, UDP‑glucose pyrophosphorylase (UDP‑PP) removes one organic phosphate from α‑d‑glucose‑1‑phosphate to produce UDP‑glucose, which is soluble in the cytoplasm and is the precursor for the generation of microcrystalline cellulose. There are three more steps associated with polymerization of UDP glucose and formation of glucan chains: chain initiation, chain elongation and chain termination. In chain initiation, UDP‑glucosyltransferase (UGT) transfers a glucose residue from UDP‑glucose into a sitosterol molecule on the cytoplasmic face of the plasma membrane, forming sitosterol β‑glucoside and releasing an UDP. Sitosterol β‑glucoside functions as a primer for cellulose biosynthesis in plants. It uses the cellulose synthase initiation factor (CesAi) glucosyltransferase enzyme and the glucose of an UDP‑glucose molecule to initiate glucan polymerization by synthesizing lipid‑linked oligosaccharides called sitosterol cellodextrins (SCDs) in the cytoplasm. The SCDs then flip to the outer face of the plasma membrane and bind to the elongation cellulase synthase (CesAe). Then, the SCDs use korrigan cellulase enzyme to cleave the sitosterol molecule from cellodextrin. The cellodextrin has a small water‑soluble glucan chain. Following this step, the cellodextrin uses the membrane‑bound sucrose synthase (SuSy) enzyme to extend the glucan chain into a 36‑mer growing chain by adding UDP‑glucose molecules. Finally, termination of the glucan chain occurs. Therefore, the glucan chains are derived from soluble α ‑d‑glucose units that polymerize through β‑1,4‑glycosidase bonds. The glucan chains then extrude into the plant cell wall where they coalesce to form microfibrils. In microfibrils, the multiple hydroxyl group of the glucose residues of one glucan chain form hydrogen bonds with oxygen molecules of another glucan chain, resulting in firm side‑by‑side chains of glucans with high tensile strength cellulose microfibrils.


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Cinnamic acid

Paracoumaric acid



Paracoumaryl alcohol

Caffeic acid


Caffeyl aldehyde

Caffeyl alcohol

Ferulic acid



Coniferyl alcohol

Sinapic acid



Sinapyl alcohol

Syringyl (S) (phenylpropanoid unit I)

Guaiacyl (G) (phenylpropanoid unit II)

Parahydroxyphenyl (phenylpropanoid unit I)

5-Hydroxyferulic acid

5-Hydroxy- feruloyl-CoA

5-Hydroxy- coniferaldehyde

5-Hydroxyconiferyl alcohol






































C3H-deficient alfalfa lines in ruminants42. In another study, downregulation of another lignin biosynthesis pathway enzyme, cinnamyl alcohol dehydrogenase (CAD) in alfalfa resulted in modification of lignin residue composition and increased in in situ digest- ibility. However, CAD downregulation in alfalfa did not result in a decrease in the amount of lignin in the plants44. In Populus spp., CAD downregulation resulted in improved lignin solubility in an alkaline medium, leading to more efficient delignification45 and high- lighting the possibility of decreasing the need for pre- treatment processes in this species. Finally, suppression of another lignin biosynthesis enzyme, O-methyl trans- ferase (oMT) in tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) resulted in increased biomass production without decreasing the overall lignin content46. Future challenges include gaining a better understanding of lignin biosynthesis pathway enzymes in biomass crops and understanding the effects of downregulating each lignin biosynthesis enzyme in a wider range of relevant species.

Another strategy of interest is to divert plant carbon resources away from lignin production, which can also have additional advantages in terms of improving biomass content. For example, shifting energy from lignin biosynthesis to polysaccharide synthesis has been achieved in aspen (P. tremuloides). Downregulation of 4-coumarate CoA ligase (4Cl) resulted in a 45% decrease in lignin content and a concomitant 15% increase in cel- lulose content47. These figures were further increased to a 52% reduction in lignin content and a 30% increase in cellulose content when coniferaldehyde 5-hydroxylase

(CAld5H) was also downregulated48. Finally, downregu- lation of cinnamoyl CoA reductase (CCr) in transgenic tobacco resulted in a decrease in lignin content and a concomitant increase in xylose and glucose associated with the cell wall49.

Importantly, the genetic manipulation of lignin bio- synthesis pathway enzymes has been specifically shown to reduce the need for pretreatment processes for the production of fermentable sugars. For example, a recent proof-of-concept study showed that downregulation of six different lignin biosynthetic pathway enzymes in alfalfa — C4H (cinnamate 4-hydroxylase), HCT (hydroxy- cinnamoyl transferase), C3H (4-hydroxycinnamate 3-hydroxylase), CCoA-oMT (S-adenosyl-methionine caffeoyl-CoA/5-hydroxyferuloyl-CoA-O-methyltrans- ferase), F5H (ferulate 5-hydroxylase), or CoMT (caffeate O-methyltransferase)— could reduce or eliminate the needs for chemical pretreatment in the production of fermentable sugars50,51. The report indicates that some of the transgenic plants yield nearly twice as much sugar from cell walls as do wild-type plants upon conversion. The same study also indicated that downregulation of lignin biosynthesis enzymes could bypass the need for acid pretreatment. However, alfalfa is not a biomass bio- fuel crop and similar studies in a wide range of biomass crops are needed to confirm the usefulness of downregu- lating lignin biosynthesis pathway enzymes, either singly or in combination. Further investigations are also crucial to ensure that lignin manipulations do not interfere with plant structural integrity and defence against pathogens and insects35,39.

Figure 3 | Lignin biosynthesis. The lignin biosynthesis pathway. 4CL, hydroxycinnamate‑CoA/5‑hydroxyferuloyl‑CoA‑ ligase; C3H, 4‑hydroxycinnamate 3‑hydroxylase; C4H, cinnamate 4‑hydroxylase; CAD, hydroxycinnamyl alcohol dehydrogenase; CCoA‑OMT, S‑adenosyl‑methionine caffeoyl‑CoA/5‑hydroxyferuloyl‑CoA‑O‑methyltransferase; CCR, hydroxycinnamoyl‑CoA:NADPH oxidoreductase; COMT, caffeate O‑methyltransferase; OMT: S‑adenosyl‑methione‑ caffeate/5 hydroxyferulate‑O‑methyltransferase; PAL: phenyl ammonia lyase; SAD, sinapyl alcohol dehydrogenase.


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Substrate-disrupting factors. recently, a group of pro- tein modules have been recognized that disrupt plant cell-wall substrates, potentially increasing the accessi- bility, and therefore efficiency, of hydrolysis enzymes. These modules mainly comprise cellulose or other carbohydrate-binding modules of the glycosyl hydrolase family that are required for polysaccharide hydrolysis. The effects of these factors on cell-wall structure, plant growth and development has also been demonstrated in transgenic plants52 These factors are known to function synergistically with each other to disrupt plant cell-wall substrates53,54. A group of proteins called expansins have an important role in loosening the cell wall to allow expansion and growth55–57. recently, a report58 showed that one possible substrate for cellulosic ethanol pro- duction, corn stover, contains expansin. Another study has indicated the presence of expansins and another, unidentified molecule59 in corn stover, both of which increase the cellulose deconstruction efficiency. Another protein called ‘swollenin’ has been found in the fungus Trichoderma reesei and has a cellulose-binding domain and an expansin-like domain, which together have a disrupting effect on crystalline carbohydrates60. little is yet known about how these proteins function and whether more substrate-disrupting factors exist. Transferring the genes that encode these proteins to model plants or cellulosic biomass crops themselves, and testing the viability of the resulting, transgenic plants might provide another route towards modify- ing cell walls and decreasing the need for expensive pretreatment processes.

Modifying features of cellulose. Increasing cellulose solubility can increase saccharification, therefore provid- ing another potential route to decreasing pretreatment needs. For example, in algae, exopolysaccharides such as acetan, hyalurona, alginate, levan and chitosan are water soluble. Transgenic expression of levansucrose from the bacterium Erwinia amylovora (which medi- ates the synthesis of water-soluble fructan from sucrose) increases permeability of algal cell walls61. Furthermore, transgenic algae expressing exogenous hyaluronan and chitin synthase in the extracellular matrix have increased cellulose production62,63. These studies might become important because algae can potentially be used as a source of biofuel.

The extreme complexity of the cell-wall matrix, which gives it its crystalline nature, is an important factor in the recalcitrance of cell walls to biomass release, and ways of decreasing this recalcitrance are under investigation64. For example, expression of cellabiose dehydrogenase (CDH) in feedstock crops might decrease cellulose crys- tallinity. CDH in a crude mixture of cellulases is reported to increase the degradation of crystalline cellulose65, possibly by preventing the re-condensation of glyco- sidic bonds of cellulose chains that have been nicked by endocellulases66. In addition, CDH alters cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin in vitro by creating hydroxyl radicals67. Along similar lines, β-glucosidase has been used for some time in hydrolysis in the pulp industry68. In recent studies, injecting thermophilic α-glucosidase

and β-glucosidase into tobacco plants converted plant tissues into fermentable sugars69–71; the β-glucosidase was used to decrease cellulose crystallinity72 and therefore increase the saccharification of cell-wall polysaccharides. Finally, expression of cellulose-binding module (CBM) in tobacco decreases cellulose crystallinity73, and its addition in vitro decreases pure cellulose crystallinity74. This effect might be due to the CBD (cellulose binding domain) hindering the transition from the cellulose polymerization phase to the crystallization phase, and therefore increasing the rate of cellulose biosynthesis74,75. Applying these strategies in relevant feedstock crops therefore suggests an important research direction for bioethanol production.

Conclusions Although some important advances have been made to lay the foundations for plant genetic engineering for biofuel production, this science is still in its infancy. A general challenge will be the development of efficient, genotype-nonspecific genetic engineering systems in feedstock crops — at present only a few cultivars of each feedstock biomass crop can be efficiently trans- formed. There are also specific challenges relating to the various areas discussed in this review. For example, after decades of research aimed at reducing the costs of microbial cellulases, their production is still expen- sive13. one way of decreasing such costs is to produce these enzymes within crop biomass. However, this approach has its own challenges. For example, plants have not been able to produce these enzymes at a level sufficient for complete cell-wall deconstruction (about 10% of plant total soluble proteins). As discussed above, research is particularly needed to focus on the target- ing of these enzymes to multiple subcellular locations in order to increase levels of enzyme production and produce enzymes with higher biological activities. The potential also exists to produce larger amounts of these enzymes in chloroplasts, and exciting progress has been made in terms of the crops for which the chloroplast can now be genetically engineered. More efforts are needed towards the development of systems to genetically engi- neer chloroplasts of biomass crops such as cereals and perennial grasses46.

There are also several challenges outside the realm of genetic engineering that need to be addressed before ethanol from cellulosic biomass can be considered as a solution to global fuel demands. These include transport and storage issues. Another important issue is whether agricultural land should be shifted from food, feed, fibre and shelter crops to biofuel crops.

Finally, there are questions over whether ethanol is the ideal biofuel. ethanol cannot be transported through normal pipelines due to its hydrophilic nature causing pipeline corrosion, and would be expensive to transport by trains or tankers. An alternative to ethanol might be butanol, which has several advantages over ethanol as a biofuel: it is much less hydrophilic11, produces more energy per unit, is less volatile and less corrosive than ethanol (enabling easier transportation and avoiding damage to automobile valves and gaskets), and can


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be used in gasoline-powered vehicles without engine modification or adverse effects on operation. The main challenge facing the use of butanol is its production costs — it is much more difficult to produce by fermentation than ethanol because of its toxicity to the microbes that are used for fermentation, and is therefore harder to produce in relatively high concentrations. like ethanol, butanol can be produced from starchy crops such as corn, rice, barley and sorghum. Butanol could also be produced from enzymatic hydrolysis of lignocellulosic

matter, specifically using Clostridium beijerinckii P260, which produces enzymes that can utilize the five- and six-carbon sugars that are present in cellulosic biomass and convert them to butanol.

whether ethanol or butanol is the main biofuel of the future, plant genetic engineering to deconstruct plant cell-wall polysaccharides, to suppress lignin biosynthesis enzymes, or to increase the level of polysaccharides or the overall plant biomass promises to have key roles in decreasing biofuel production costs.

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FURTHER INFORMATION Mariam Sticklen’s homepage: Joint genome Institute:

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nATUre revIewS | genetics volUMe 9 | jUne 2008 | 443

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