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New Enzyme Could Help to Engineer Plants Optimized for Biofuel Production

Top: Lignin is normally synthesized from three monolignols. The hydroxyl groups (OH), shown in red, must remain unmodified for these precursors to link up. Bottom: The new enzyme (green structure) can methylate the hydroxyl group, potentially interfering with lignin biosynthesis. Click to enlarge.

Scientists at the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory have engineered a new enzyme and demonstrated its potential ability to interfere with the production of lignin, a key cell-wall component in plants. This approach to enzyme engineering, described in the 1 January 2010, issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry (available online December 25, 2009), could be used to further understand the mechanisms of lignin biosynthesis, and may lead to the production of plants that are easier to convert to biofuels.

Plants with less lignin in their cell walls are easier to break down and to convert to fuel products. Lignin, a complex polymer, is normally synthesized in the cell wall from the oxidative coupling of three simple monolignols; the hydroxyl (OH) group of each of these must remain unmodified to allow these precursors to link up. Chang-Jun Liu and his postdoc Mohammad-Wadud Bhuiya created a novel enzyme that can methylate these specific hydroxyl groups, and may therefore lead to ways to interfere with lignin biosynthesis.

Increasing the ‘digestibility’ of plant matter is one main approach to making plants a viable alternative energy source. Our group has been working to achieve that goal by elucidating the catalytic mechanisms of plant enzymes, and then using that knowledge and the tools of molecular biology and protein engineering to influence the way plant cell walls are constructed.

We understand relatively well how lignin precursor molecules are synthesized. They have very specific patterns of chemical modification known as methylation, which appear to be essential to their ability to link up to form the lignin polymer. From this knowledge, we came up with the hypothesis that changing the methylation pattern on these precursor molecules could be one way to inhibit lignin synthesis.

—Chang-Jun Liu, lead author

The scientists first looked for natural plant enzymes with different methylation patterns—that is, enzymes that methylate at different chemical locations than those typically involved in lignin synthesis. The trick is that these enzymes normally work on different substrates, not the lignin precursors. So the scientists’ goal was to change the parts of the enzyme that recognize the substrate so it would work on lignin precursors, while retaining the desired methylation location.

To identify the parts of the enzyme to change, the scientists used computational tools to examine structural models of the enzyme and its genetic code. They compared these data with the same information for the enzymes involved in lignin synthesis. This process led them to discover seven possible amino acid sites that might need to be changed to alter the enzyme’s specificity so it could act on the lignin precursors.

Through a process of systematically modifying the gene for the enzyme and then screening the products, the scientists found that changes at two of the seven sites could make new enzymes that were able to methylate the lignin precursors in the desired way. Additional modifications and testing revealed that the combination of these two changes produced the most effective enzyme.

The scientists then used the original enzyme structure to build a model of the new version docked with the lignin precursor molecules as they would be during methylation. This helped them identify additional amino acid sites to modify to strengthen the interaction and activity.

The final enzyme shows nearly ideal activity for methylating the lignin precursors at the desired location. Test-tube based biochemical tests showed that when this new enzyme was used to methylate the lignin precursors, the modified precursors were no longer able to link up to form lignin polymer. This provided direct experimental evidence for the long-proposed lignin synthesis mechanism described above.

The next step will be to see if it works in plants. The scientists will engineer plants with the gene for the new enzyme to see if it reduces the amount of lignin in the plant cell walls.

Our hope is that this will introduce a new step at the end of the normal lignin biosynthetic pathway and redirect synthesis from the conventional lignin precursors to the specifically methylated ‘dead’ products to yield less lignin. This work will also help us further understand the lignin polymerization process in planta. Since we know less lignin makes cell walls easier to digest, this may be an effective biochemical approach to engineering plants for more efficient biofuel production.

—Chang-Jun Liu

This work was done by Liu and his postdoc Mohammad Bhuiya. The work was funded by the DOE Office of Science.


  • Mohammad-Wadud Bhuiya and Chang-Jun Liu (2009) Engineering monolignol 4-O-methyltransferases to modulate lignin biosynthesis. J. Biol. Chem. doi: 10.1074/jbc.M109.036673



Lignin is what helps the plant stand up, it might be good to have low lignin switchgrass, but if it lays down in the field it will not grow very tall :)


SJC - It will also be harder to harvest. Sounds a little like the boneless chicken to me. :-)

fred schumacher

As a retired farmer, one who specialized in native grass seed production from plants like switchgrass, I have to really question this line of research. Obviously these researchers have never had to deal with lodging.

Lignin is what holds the plant together. It provides the shear strength to keep the cellulose molecules from sliding past each other. The strength of a beam is only as good as it resists shear forces. Low lignin will cause plants to break down and lodge, slowing plant growth and making harvest extremely difficult, if not impossible.


Sometimes just because you CAN do something does not mean you should DO it. Lignin can be used in the process for heat. Biochar can be returned to the land for more fertile soils that retain moisture. It is good that they are looking into this, but they should give careful consideration before deploying.

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