Magazine article Science News

Cottoning onto How Plants Make Cellulose

Magazine article Science News

Cottoning onto How Plants Make Cellulose

Article excerpt

One of the most abundant materials on Earth also happens to be one of the most enigmatic. Cellulose, a large polymer consisting of numerous sugar molecules linked together, is found in all plant cell walls. It makes trees stand tall, puts the fiber in fruits and vegetables, and gives cotton its puffy boll. Yet the steps plants use to make cellulose have eluded researchers for years, prompting many to turn their attention to other questions.

Now, a new finding may revive interest in this ubiquitous molecule. Scientists at Calgene in Davis, Calif., and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem have identified three plant genes-one in rice and two in cotton-each of which may code for cellulose synthase, an enzyme that assembles sugar molecules into cellulose.

No plant cellulose synthase has yet been isolated, so the researchers sought plant genes that resemble genes known to code for that enzyme in bacteria, says David M. Stalker of Calgene. The group reports its findings in the Oct. 29 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Identification of the genes may enable scientists to genetically alter plants to produce cellulose with more desirable properties. Textile manufacturers have told Calgene, which runs a large cotton-seed business, that "they'd like fibers to be more uniform, stronger, and longer," Stalker says. One day, perhaps, cotton fibers could be made without plants at all, says R. Malcolm Brown Jr. of the University of Texas at Austin, who studies cellulose synthesis in bacteria. …

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