Improving barley for biofuel production – efficient transformation for lignin manipulation

  • Marta Maluk

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    Cost effective production of biofuel from plant biomass (second generation biofuels) is currently a key challenge. To achieve this, accessibility of plant cell wall polysaccharides to chemical, enzymatic and microbial digestion could be improved by altering lignin structure and composition or by reducing lignin content, as lignin is one cell wall component that has already been shown to contribute to biomass recalcitrance. Therefore, this thesis reports the genetic manipulation of lignin biosynthesis through down-regulation of cinnamyl alcohol dehydrogenase (CAD) genes in barley (Hordeum vulgare L.). Barley has been chosen as the target plant for lignin manipulation for a few reasons: it is a major cereal crop that produces large amounts of lignocellulosic plant biomass that can potentially be used as animal feed or to produce second generation biofuels and also because it is a model grass for other bioenergy crops. CAD, as the final enzyme in the lignin pathway, is a perfect target for lignin manipulation. Characterised CAD mutants and transgenics have shown that down-regulation of CAD improves digestibility and does not influence plant growth and fertility. Due to the difficulty and complexity of transformation of monocot species, there are only a few reports describing down-regulation of CAD in monocots, and none in barley. Here, in this thesis, lignin was altered by down-regulating CAD genes using an RNAi construct with part of the HvCAD2 gene, the gene which has the highest expression level of all CAD genes. Transgenic barley plants showed reduced enzyme activity in the T0 generation (31% compared to EV plants) and enzyme activity was reduced even more in the T1 (to 3%) and T2 (to 2%) generations. The HvCAD2 RNAi barley lines had similar or slightly reduced Klason total lignin contents relative to control plants, but lignin structure and composition were altered. The RNAi plants had lower thioacidolysis yields, S/G ratio was reduced (1.59 in the empty vector controls versus 0.96–1.21 in the transgenic barley plants), the relative frequency of S units was reduced by 11–20%, the proportion of G units was increased by 17–32%, there was increased sinapaldehyde accumulation in lignin and ferulic acid abundance was reduced relative to control plants. Analysed transgenic barley plants had an orange stem phenotype. Growth season and conditions hugely affected the intensity of the phenotype. Because lignin plays a major role in culm strength and pathogen resistance, the influence of down-regulation of CAD on these features was characterised. The changed physicochemical nature of cell walls in HvCAD2 RNAi lines does not decrease the strength of the straw and does not decrease the resistance to the biotrophic Blumeria graminis and to the hemibiotrophic Rhynchosporium commune pathogens. The modified cell walls in the HvCAD2 RNAi lines had moderately improved sugar release for biofuel production. This study proves that it is possible to down-regulate CAD in cereal crops in order to change lignin structure and composition in plants without a negative impact on plant growth, fertility or pathogen resistance.
    Date of Award2014
    Original languageEnglish
    SponsorsBiotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council
    SupervisorClaire Halpin (Supervisor)


    • Cinnamyl alcohol dehydrogenase
    • CAD
    • Lignin
    • Orange lemma
    • Barley
    • Saccharification
    • Agrobacterium-mediated barley transformation
    • Biofuels
    • Bioenergy

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