Improvement of biomass through lignin modification


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Lignin, a major component of the cell wall of vascular plants, has long been recognized for its negative impact on forage quality, paper manufacturing, and, more recently, cellulosic biofuel production. Over the last two decades, genetic and biochemical analyses of brown midrib mutants of maize, sorghum and related grasses have advanced our understanding of the relationship between lignification and forage digestibility. This work has also inspired genetic engineering efforts aimed at generating crops with altered lignin, with the expectation that these strategies would enhance forage digestibility and/or pulping efficiency. The knowledge gained from these bioengineering efforts has greatly improved our understanding of the optimal lignin characteristics required for various applications of lignocellulosic materials while also contributing to our understanding of the lignin biosynthetic pathway. The recent upswing of interest in cellulosic biofuel production has become the new focus of lignin engineering. Populus trichocarpa and Brachypodium distachyon are emerging as model systems for energy crops. Lignin research on these systems, as well as on a variety of proposed energy crop species, is expected to shed new light on lignin biosynthesis and its regulation in energy crops, and lead to rational genetic engineering approaches to modify lignin for improved biofuel production.