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Keywords:

  • metabolic engineering;
  • sugars;
  • sucrose;
  • hexose;
  • novel sugars

Summary

Carbon captured through photosynthesis is transported, and sometimes stored in plants, as sugar. All organic compounds in plants trace to carbon from sugars, so sugar metabolism is highly regulated and integrated with development. Sugars stored by plants are important to humans as foods and as renewable feedstocks for industrial conversion to biofuels and biomaterials. For some purposes, sugars have advantages over polymers including starches, cellulose or storage lipids. This review considers progress and prospects in plant metabolic engineering for increased yield of endogenous sugars and for direct production of higher-value sugars and simple sugar derivatives. Opportunities are examined for enhancing export of sugars from leaves. Focus then turns to manipulation of sugar metabolism in sugar-storing sink organs such as fruits, sugarcane culms and sugarbeet tubers. Results from manipulation of suspected ‘limiting’ enzymes indicate a need for clearer understanding of flux control mechanisms, to achieve enhanced levels of endogenous sugars in crops that are highly selected for this trait. Outcomes from in planta conversion to novel sugars and derivatives range from severe interference with plant development to field demonstration of crops accumulating higher-value sugars at high yields. The differences depend on underlying biological factors including the effects of the novel products on endogenous metabolism, and on biotechnological fine-tuning including developmental expression and compartmentation patterns. Ultimately, osmotic activity may limit the accumulation of sugars to yields below those achievable using polymers; but results indicate the potential for increases above current commercial sugar yields, through metabolic engineering underpinned by improved understanding of plant sugar metabolism.