The July 14 issue of Science, the world’s leading journal of original scientific research, features the findings of a global team of cellulose researchers, including Professor Barry Goodell, head of Virginia Tech’s Department of Wood Science and Forest Products in the College of Natural Resources and Environment.

Researchers have been studying how plants are decomposed at the end of their life span in order to provide insight into several important issues ranging from the development of cellulosic biofuels to the cycling of carbon in the environment. How woody plants evolve and how fungi, the primary decomposers of wood in the forest, work symbiotically with them is important for a number of reasons, including the development and sustainable production of biofuels.

The research team, which also included students who studied under Goodell, summarized its collective findings in the paper, “Plant cell wall decomposing machinery underlies the functional diversity of forest fungi.”

“The journal article explains how common ‘wood rotting’ fungi have evolved with plants to become highly efficient degraders of plant biomass in nature,” said Goodell. “In particular, our research team showed that certain types of fungi became more energetically efficient over time, as they adapted to the evolutionary changes that occurred in trees — a co-evolutionary process.”

Because of the importance of cellulosic materials in biomaterials and bioenergy applications, understanding the cell wall degrading machinery is key to isolating the basic building blocks of cellulose sugars, which can then be used to produce renewable biofuels and chemicals.

While the article’s primary author is from England, multiple labs from around the world worked on the project.

Goodell noted, “The international collaboration demonstrated the global relevance of the research, and it was essential to have this sort of teamwork to move a project of this size forward. The research has practical implications in that it provides tools to deconstruct cellulosic materials and wood by mimicking nature to produce some of the basic building blocks that are needed in green industries.”

In the majority of northern hemisphere forests, fungal-modified lignin residues from decomposing trees make up as much as 30 percent of the carbon in the soil; these carbon residues are very long lived. Lignin is the organic substance binding the cells of trees and other woody plants.

“This sequestered carbon represents an important carbon sink in the environment,” Goodell pointed out. The work presented in the “Science” article helps to confirm an earlier hypothesis developed 15 years ago by Goodell and Jody Jellison, associate director of the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station, on the role of free radical chemistry in the degradative mechanisms responsible for the production of these carbon residues.

In addition to the importance of the research in shedding light on the co-evolution of fungi and plants, and defining a path for carbon sequestration in the environment, the work also points to new biochemical pathways for the deconstruction of cellulose from sustainable biomaterials that will be useful in the production of feedstocks for cellulosic biofuels.

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