Synthetic enzyme reduces lignin content

Public domain image. Source: Glazer, A. W., and Nikaido, H. (1995). Microbial Biotechnology: fundamentals of applied microbiology. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, p. 340. ISBN 0-71672608-4

Highlighted article: Kewwi Zhang, Mohammad-Wadud Bhuiya, Jorge Rencoret Pazo, Yuchen Miao, Hoon Kim, John Ralph, and Chang-Jun Liu (2012) An Engineered Monolignol 4-O-Methyltransferase Depresses Lignin Biosynthesis and Confers Novel Metabolic Capability in Arabidopsis. Plant Cell Preview.

Zhang et al. reduce lignin content by introducing an artificial enzyme to the cell wall biosynthesis pathway. This is the first time synthetic biology has been used to change cell wall structure, which is usually modified by changing the expression of endogenous enzymes or introducing a protein from another organism. In fact at the moment, synthetic biology is not a common method of manipulating any plant pathway.

Relevant background

public domain image, courtesy of Chino

Lignin is one of three components of secondary cell walls. It is the part which makes extracting sugar from the cell wall, for example for second generation biofuel production, difficult.

Lignin is made up of three monolignols: coniferyl, sinapyl, and p-coumaryl.

They are synthesised in the cytosol and transported to the cell wall. At the cell wall, the monolignols are oxidised, causing their phenol group to become radicalised. The phenoxy radicals polymerise to form the lignin macromolecule.

The Liu lab had the idea of preventing monolignol oxidation by methylation of the phenol group so that the phenoxy radicals were prevented from forming. Their first attempt was to synthesise a selection of monolignol 4-O-methyltransferases (MOMTs). The artificial MOMTS were fusions of two naturally occurring enzymes: lignin biosynthesis pathway methyltransferase COMT, which does not have any 4-O-methyltransferase activity; and fairy fan enzyme isoeugenol O-methyltransferase, which catalyzes 4-O-methylation of isoeugenol and eugenol, but doesn’t affect monolignols. Although several of these artificial enzymes were able to 4-O-methylate monolignols as expected in vitro, they had no activity in vivo.


Zhang et al. used MOMT3, a promising enzyme from their earlier work, as a starting point. (more…)

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