Rhode Island Science and Technology Advisory Council (STAC)

Making Innovation Central to Rhode Island's Future Gina M. Raimondo, Governor

Genetically Transforming Plant Fibers

Published on May 1, 2008

Imagine a piece of wood that could easily withstand the force of a powerful hurricane, tornado or snowstorm. Or cotton that never shrinks. Husband and wife team Eric and Alison Roberts are investigating a way to genetically alter, or transform, plants to improve the properties of the microscopic threads called cellulose microfibrils that make up wood, cotton and other commercially important fiber crops.

But before they could do any kind of transformation, the two had to investigate the genes that control microfibril structure to obtain the information needed to genetically engineer the process. It was known that the cellulose microfibrils of land plants, which are used to produce textiles, lumber, packaging and other products, are identical. It was also known that some seaweeds have very different microfibril structures with potentially unique and beneficial properties. Working with the red seaweed Porphyra yezoensis, the team found that the cellulose synthase genes that encode the enzymes responsible for making cellulose microfibrils also differ in land plants and seaweeds.

By transferring a cellulose synthase gene from the seaweed into a land plant (the moss known as Physcomitrella), the duo has entered into the realm of genetic transformation. If the genetically modified mosses show changes in cellulose microfibril structure, this would demonstrate that the method could be used to engineer commercially important fiber plants to make a piece of plywood stronger or even improve medical and pharmaceutical products.

When Eric and Alison began their research, they had four objectives: 1) to clone and sequence a complete cellulose synthase gene from the seaweed Porphyra yezoensis; 2) to create a vector (a specially packaged version of the gene) that could be transferred into the moss Physcomitrella; 3) to incorporate the seaweed gene into Physcomitrella; and 4) to examine the microfibrils produced by the genetically engineered moss by electron microscopy to determine if their structure and physical properties have been altered.

The team (which included a summer undergraduate student from URI) has completed the first three objectives successfully and is working on the last one. Lab reagents for DNA cloning, summer support for a student, and supplies needed to culture the organisms involved as well as a plant growth chamber ?? purchased with money from the Research Alliance grant ?? have helped expedite the process.

In April 2007, the team presented their results (to date) at the Northeast Algal Society Meeting. Alison and Eric presented a poster that detailed their work on the project and helped explain what they hoped to accomplish. This summer, they presented their research at the International Cell Wall Conference in Copenhagen, at the American Society of Plant Biology in Chicago and at the annual meeting of the Phycological Society of America, held in Providence.

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