Research Communications

Building Blocks 

Understanding how plants create cell walls could improve food, biofuel production

Nov. 16, 2010

What do candy, cosmetics, T-shirts, and paper have in common?

They’re all derived from cell walls—tough structures surrounding plant cells that influence cell shape, growth, and communication. Found in plants but not animals, cell walls help woody stalks stand tall and make almonds harder than apples.

“We are eating cell walls, we are wearing cell walls, and yet we don’t understand how plant cells build these complex structures outside themselves,” says Ahmed Faik, an Ohio University associate professor of environmental and plant biology.

Ahmed Faik
Ahmed Faik, associate professor of environmental and plant biology.

Faik’s laboratory is dedicated to finding out how plant cells make cell walls. He knows that cells dispatch specific worker proteins called glycosyltransferases (a type of enzyme) to tack on the walls’ main ingredients, sugars. It takes about 100 different enzymes, each with its own specific function, to build a wall. So far, says Faik, researchers have discovered the function of only a dozen of those enzymes.

Faik recently added two more to the collection. He and his collaborators published a paper in the Journal of Biological Chemistry identifying the first two enzymes known to assist in building arabinogalactan-proteins (AGPs), a major component of all cell walls.

Faik found that the enzyme fucosyltransferases helps build AGPs by adding the sugar fucose. Since AGPs contain many sugars besides fucose, Faik knows that other enzymes are involved. But his discovery will let researchers start piecing together the puzzle. And Faik, along with his Ohio University collaborators, Allan Showalter and Marcia Kieliszewski, has already gone on to discover what might be a second AGP enzyme, a finding they’ll publish soon.

Now that they’re starting to name the players, researchers can try to “tweak the composition of the cell wall and adapt it for our needs,” says Faik, whose research is funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That could benefit industries ranging from food production, which could adjust the growth rates of crops and increase produce shelf life, to biofuels, which could improve the conversion of cell wall sugars into ethanol and other hydrocarbon fuels.

by Stephanie Dutchen

This article appears in the Autumn/Winter 2010 issue of Perspectives magazine.