Structural features of alternative lignin monomers associated with improved digestibility of artificially lignified maize cell walls

John H. Grabber, Christy Davidson, Yuki Tobimatsu, Hoon Kim, Fachuang Lu, Yimin Zhu, Martina Opietnik, Nicholas Santoro, Cliff E. Foster, Fengxia Yue, Dino Ress, Xuejun Pan, John Ralph

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15 Scopus citations


Plant biologists are seeking new approaches for modifying lignin to improve the digestion and utilization of structural polysaccharides in crop cultivars for the production of biofuels, biochemicals, and livestock. To identify promising targets for lignin bioengineering, we artificially lignified maize (Zea mays L.) cell walls with normal monolignols plus 21 structurally diverse alternative monomers to assess their suitability for lignification and for improving fiber digestibility. Lignin formation and structure were assessed by mass balance, Klason lignin, acetyl bromide lignin, gel-state 2D-NMR and thioacidolysis procedures, and digestibility was evaluated with rumen microflora and from glucose production by fungal enzymes following mild acid or base pretreatments. Highly acidic or hydrophilic monomers proved unsuitable for lignin modification because they severely depressed cell wall lignification. By contrast, monomers designed to moderately alter hydrophobicity or introduce cleavable acetal, amide, or ester functionalities into the polymer often readily formed lignin, but most failed to improve digestibility, even after chemical pretreatment. Fortunately, several types of phenylpropanoid derivatives containing multiple ester-linked catechol or pyrogallol units were identified as desirable genetic engineering targets because they readily formed wall-bound polymers and improved digestibility, presumably by blocking cross-linking of lignin to structural polysaccharides and promoting lignin fragmentation during mild acidic and especially alkaline pretreatment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number110070
JournalPlant Science
StatePublished - Oct 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Genetics
  • Agronomy and Crop Science
  • Plant Science


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