Letters: January-March 2010
Fighting 150 million years of cell-wall evolution
Good articles on biofuels (October-December 2009) — and timely. To what extent is the research on how to break down plant cell walls fighting at least 150 million years of plant evolution that protects plants from decaying fungi and bacteria? If we were to produce a plant with a cell wall that was easy for humans to break down, would this plant not be vulnerable to attack? This plant might be difficult to grow, a fact of particular importance to tree farmers like myself. (I have managed my family's tree farm in Comptche since 1977.) It could be that humans are the neophytes here in the effort to find ways to easily grow and rot wood.
George Hollister Comptche, CA
Author Laura Bartley, UC Davis postdoctoral plant pathologist, replies:
You make an excellent and sobering point. Cell walls function as a barrier to, and present specific biochemical defenses against, pests and pathogens. In light of this, cell-wall researchers routinely subject plants with modified walls to inoculation with pathogens and at times find increased susceptibility. Modified energy crops will need to be field-tested for hardiness under diverse conditions before large-scale use. This said, we remain optimistic. Plant evolution has been limited to acting on lineage-limited combinations of genetic material. We hope that a semirational approach that combines multiple changes, such as new wall compositions along with wall-independent means for disease resistance, will allow us to both “grow and rot wood.” Other approaches may avoid this challenge. For example, one idea is to make plants that produce cell-wall degrading enzymes at the end of their life cycle.
Cal Ag subscriber goes electronic
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Anthony Meadow Oakland
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The October-December 2009 issue contained the following errors, which were corrected online:
Typographical errors were corrected in figure 5 (page 175) of the review article by Bryan Jenkins et al.; the correct words are “coal” (not “goal”) and “grease” (not “grass”). For corrected figure, go to: http://calag.ucanr.edu/archive/?file=fig6304p175.jpg .
Page 164 included a picture of wild rice, which is not under consideration as a biofuel. The photograph was replaced with the Japonica species predominant in California rice production. Go to: http://calag.ucanr.edu/archive/?file=img6304p164.jpg .
The title of a review article by Charles E. Wyman and Bin Yang was changed to “Cellulosic biomass could help meet California's transportation fuel needs” (addition of the word “help;” page 185).