Breeding grasses for capacity to biofuel production or silage feeding value: an updated list of genes involved in maize secondary cell wall biosynthesis and assembly


In the near future, maize, sorghum, or switchgrass stovers and cereal straws will be a significant source of carbohydrates for sustainable biofuel production, in addition to the current use of grass silage in cattle feeding. However, cell wall properties, including the enzymatic degradability of structural polysaccharides in industrial fermenters or animal rumen, is greatly influenced by the embedding of cell wall carbohydrates in lignin matrix, and the linkages between lignins, p-hydroxycinnamic acids, and arabinoxylans. Breeding for higher and cheaper biofuel or silage production will thus be based on the discovery of genetic traits involved in each cell wall component biosynthesis and deposition in each lignified tissue. Due to its considerable genetic and genomic backgrounds, maize is the relevant model species for identifying traits underlying cell wall degradability variations in grasses. Maize genes involved or putatively involved in the biosynthesis of cell wall phenolic compounds, cell wall carbohydrates and regulation factors were therefore searched for using data available in grass, Arabidopsis, and woody species (mostly poplar and eucalyptus). All maize ortholog genes were searched for using protein sequences and a “blastp” strategy against data available in the database. Genes were also mapped in silico considering their physical position in the same database. Finally, 409 candidate genes putatively involved in secondary cell wall biosynthesis and assembly were shown in the maize genome, out of which 130 were related to phenolic compound biosynthesis, 81 were related to cell wall carbohydrate biosynthesis, and 198 were involved in more or less known regulation mechanisms. Most probable candidate genes involved in regulation and assembly of secondary cell wall belonged to the MYB (45 genes) and NAC (38 genes) families, but also included zinc finger and HDZipIII encoding genes. While genes involved in ferulic acid cross-linkages with other cell wall components were little known, several families putatively involved in (arabino)-xylan chain biosynthesis and in feruloyl transfer were shown, including especially arabinosyl-CoA-acyltransferases, feruloyl-AX b-1,2-xylosyl transferases, and xylan-O-3-arabinosyl transferases. This candidate gene list, which focused on genes and orthologs known to be involved in cell wall component biosynthesis and regulation, cannot be considered as exhaustive. Other genes, whose role in cell wall lignification and deposition have not yet been defined, should very likely be added to the list of candidates required for secondary cell wall assembly. Genes encoding proteins of still unknown function should also be added to the list, as several of the latter are probably involved in lignified tissue biosynthesis and deposition.


maize; cell wall; silage; biogas; bio-ethanol; lignin; degradability

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