Lignins, which result from the dehydrogenative polymerization of cinnamyl alcohols, are complex heteropolymers deposited in the walls of specific cells of higher plants. Lignins have probably been associated to land colonization by plants but several aspects concerning their biosynthesis, structure and function are still only partially understood. This review focuses on the modern physicochemical methods of structural analysis of lignins, and on the new approaches of molecular biology and genetic engineering applied to lignification.
The principles, advantages and limitations of three important analytical tools for studying lignin structure are presented. They include carbon 13 nuclear magnetic resonance, analytical pyrolysis and thioacidolysis. The use of these methods is illustrated by several examples concerning the characterization of grass lignins,‘lignin-like’materials in protection barriers of plants and lignins produced by cell suspension cultures.
Our present limited knowledge of the spatio temporal deposition of lignins during cell wall differentiation including the nature of the wall components associated to lignin deposition and of the cross-links between the different wall polymers is briefly reviewed.
Emphasis is placed on the phenylpropanoid pathway enzymes and their corresponding genes which are described in relation to their potential roles in the quantitative and qualitative control of lignification. Recent findings concerning the promoter sequence elements responsible for the vascular expression of some of these genes are presented.
A section is devoted to the enzymes specifically involved in the synthesis of monolignols: cinnamoyl CoA reductase and cinnamyl alcohol dehydrogenase. The recent characterization of the corresponding cDNAs/genes offers new possibilities for a better understanding of the regulation of lignification.
Finally, at the level of the synthesis, the potential involvement of peroxidases and laccases in the polymerization of monolignols is critically discussed.
In addition to previously characterized naturally occurring lignin mutants, induced lignin mutants have been obtained during the last years through genetic engineering. Some examples include plants transformed by O-methyltransferase and cinnamyl alcohol dehydrogenase antisense constructs which exhibit modified lignins.
Such strategies offer promising perspectives in gaining a better understanding of lignin metabolism and functions and represent a realistic way to improve plant biomass.