Gene for Zipped Lignin Production in Plants

Curtis Wilkerson, Saunia Withers, Shawn Mansfield, John Ralph

Lignin is an important plant cell wall component that provides critical structural support to plants. Native lignin is very difficult to break down by chemical or enzymatic means, which makes the task of producing paper and biofuels from plant material extremely difficult. However, lignin with ester bonds, called “zipped” lignin, cleaves under mildly basic conditions. Zipped lignin retains the structural properties necessary for plant life. In order to engineer plants to contain zipped lignin it is necessary to introduce an enzyme into the plant that would lead to production of a compound such as coniferyl ferulate esters.

The Invention

This technology is an acyltransferase enzyme called FMT that produces the needed feruloyl coenzyme-A. Poplar transformed with FMT incorporates ferulate esters into its lignin. This modified Poplar contains zipped lignin that is more easily extractable under mild pulping conditions, which saves on chemicals and/or energy for pulp processing. The mild pulping conditions also lead to higher pulp yields. FMT may also be used to produce forage crops that are more easily digested by livestock, leading to higher feed conversion rates.

Key Benefits
  • Easily degraded, but structurally sound “zipped” lignin: FMT introduces “zips” into lignin
  • Enable more cost effective plant material processing by reducing chemical inputs
  • Higher pulp yields: mild conditions preserve more plant fiber for paper
  • Retains structural benefits for plant health
  • Paper production, Biofuels processing, Forage crops
Technology Contact

Thomas Herlache Assistant Director Michigan State University​

Sustainable Bioenergy Cropping Systems