Athens, Ga. – When Li Tan approached his colleagues at the University of Georgia with some unusual data he had collected, they initially seemed convinced that his experiment had become contaminated; what he was seeing simply didn’t make any sense.
Tan was examining some of the sugars, proteins and polymers that make up plant cell walls, which provide the structural support and protection that allow plants to grow. Yet his samples contained a mixture of sugars that should not be present in the same structure.
However, Tan was convinced that his samples were pure so he and Debra Mohnen, who heads the lab, met again to pore over the data. They came to realize that there were hints in the data of a connection between two different types of cell wall glycans (sugars) and a specific cell wall protein known as arabinogalactan protein. This connection is not known to exist and does not conform to the commonly held scientific definitions of plant cell wall structure.
But Tan and Mohnen, who both work as part of the BioEnergy Science Center, one of three U.S. Department of Energy-funded research centers, were persistent, and they, along with an interdisciplinary team of chemists, molecular biologists and plant experts at UGA, began searching for answers. What they found could redefine our understanding of basic plant biology, and it may lead to significant improvements in the growth and processing of biofuel crops.