Chemical companies are showing increasing interest in using renewable resources as feedstocks (www.ChemicalProcessing.com/articles/2008/180.html) but efficient conversion of cellulosic materials to ethanol and other chemicals often remains challenging because the lignin in plants impedes the conversion.
Now, however, researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (http://www.ars.usda.gov) have developed a way to modify lignin so it beaks down more easily.
John Grabber, research agronomist, (Figure 1) at the U. S. Dairy Forage Research Center (http://www.dfrc.ars.usda.gov) in Madison, Wis., and colleagues have incorporated a compound called coniferyl ferulate into lignin formed within cell walls and found that under mild alkaline conditions the altered lignin broke down more readily than conventional lignin. They also determined that incorporating other compounds such as feruloyl and caffeoylquinic acid into the lignin could enhance cellulose utilization. The researchers now are working to engineer plants to make lignin with coniferyl ferulate.