Human Health: Biofuels to Grow from Plant Research Center

Improved nutrition for billions of people around the world and the development of clean, green biofuels are two key aims of a major new research center at the University of Adelaide's Waite Campus.

The ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Cell Walls is a $32 million biotechnology center that looks at the fundamental role of cell walls (biomass) in plants – in particular grasses and cereal crops – and how they can be better utilized.

Barley, wheat, rice and model grasses will be the focal points of this research. The center is hoping to discover ways of altering the macromolecules inside the cell walls to maximise their potential for reducing the risk of serious human diseases (through altering the soluble fibre levels in grain) and to benefit industry in diverse areas such as bioethanol production, malting processes for beer production, and pulp and paper manufacture.

Headquartered at the University of Adelaide, the center involves collaboration with the universities of Melbourne and Queensland and has other major research and industry partners in Scotland (University of Dundee and the James Hutton Institute), Sweden (Biomime and KTH (Royal Institute of Technology of Sweden) – Glycoscience), Germany (IPK (Leibniz-Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research)) and the United States (EBI (Energy Biosciences Institute), Arcadia Biosciences and DuPont-Pioneer).

The center has been established with $20.5 million in federal cash funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC) and an additional $12 million of support from partner institutions, and the South Australian Government. It was launched today by the Chief Executive Officer of the ARC, Professor Margaret Sheil.

"This center will play a critical role in defining the fundamental science that controls cell wall biology in plants, including important crop species. The fundamental scientific discoveries will inevitably point the way towards new technologies that will underpin Australian crop industries, which are valued at more than $8 billion per year, associated food industries valued at $40 billion per year, and the rapidly growing biofuels and biomaterials industries," said Professor Sheil.

"The center brings together a team of internationally regarded scientists, with research and industry partners from around the globe. They will not only provide delivery pathways for the research outcomes but will also provide unique international training opportunities for early career researchers, such as postgraduate students and postdoctoral fellows, who represent the future of science and technology in this country."

The Director of the new center is Professor Geoff Fincher, who has more than 37 years of experience in plant and agricultural science. Professor of Plant Science at the University of Adelaide, Professor Fincher is one of four chief investigators for the center, which also include: Professor Tony Bacic (University of Melbourne), Professor Mike Gidley (University of Queensland) and Dr Rachel Burton (University of Adelaide).

About plant cell walls

Cell walls play a number of key roles in plants, such as: providing strength and flexibility for the plant; allowing water into the cell and being waterproof when needed; providing a physical barrier to invasion by pests; allowing changes during the growth of the plant; and responding to stresses on the plant.

A key component of plant cell walls is cellulose. Cellulose is one of the most abundant molecules on the planet – an estimated 180 billion tonnes of cellulose is produced by plants each year. Cellulose is made up of glucose (sugar) molecules, which link up to form polysaccharides.

Applications of research

The research being conducted at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Cell Walls will be fundamental science that hopes to lead the way towards new techniques and technologies.

The center's researchers will work to better understand the polysaccharides in plant cell walls, and they will aim to alter the polysaccharides in grasses and cereals to produce a range of benefits for human health and industry. These benefits include:

• Improved fibre in grains. Polysaccharides known as beta-glucans are important to dietary fibre because they are not digested in the small intestine. Improving fibre levels in grains such as wheat and rice could reduce the risk of colorectal cancer, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and a number of other serious diseases for billions of people around the world. In India alone, an estimated 30 million people currently have type 2 diabetes. Researchers involved in the center have already been able to achieve an increase in glucan levels in barley, in collaboration with colleagues in the CSIRO High Fibre Grains Cluster.

• Improved animal nutrition. While beta-glucans might be beneficial in dietary fibre in humans, for production animals such as chickens and pigs, it's desirable to have lower beta-glucan levels in feed. These polysaccharides are related to slower growth rates of chickens and pigs.

• Malting and brewing. Glucans in grain are also undesirable for maltsters and brewers, because beta-glucans contribute to beer "haze" and may slow water uptake during grain germination. The cell wall group in Adelaide has a collaborative project with Viterra in this area.

• Bioethanol production. Bioethanol is a renewable fuel that is produced by the fermentation of sugars. Grasses are the major source of biomass for bioethanol production. Manipulating the composition of cell walls could enhance the amount of fermentable sugar in the plant. Researchers at the Waite Campus have already been able to boost the level of beta-glucan in barley plant tissue by up to 10 times. Private companies and universities in Australia and the United Science are investing in these research areas in the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Cell Walls.