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Title: Association Mapping of Cell Wall Synthesis Regulatory Genes and Cell Wall Quality in Switchgrass

Inefficient conversion of biomass to biofuels is one of the main barriers for biofuel production from such materials. Approximately half of polysaccharides in biomass remain unused by typical biochemical conversion methods. Conversion efficiency is influenced by the composition and structure of cell walls of biomass. Grasses such as wheat, maize, and rice, as well as dedicated perennial bioenergy crops, like switchgrass, make up ~55% of biomass that can be produced in the United States. Grass cell walls have a different composition and patterning compared with dicotyledonous plants, including the well-studied model plant, Arabidopsis. This project identified genetic determinants of cell wall composition in grasses using both naturally occurring genetic variation of switchgrass and gene network reconstruction and functional assays in rice. In addition, the project linked functional data in rice and other species to switchgrass improvement efforts through curation of the most abundant class of regulators in the switchgrass genome. Characterizing natural diversity of switchgrass for variation in cell wall composition and properties, also known as quality, provides an unbiased avenue for identifying biologically viable diversity in switchgrass cell walls. To characterizing natural diversity, this project generated cell wall composition and enzymatic deconstruction data for ~450 genotypes of the Switchgrassmore » Southern Association Collection (SSAC), a diverse collection composed of 36 switchgrass accessions from the southern U.S. distribution of switchgrass. Comparing these data with other measures of cell wall quality for the same samples demonstrated the complementary nature of the diverse characterization platforms now being used for biomass characterization. Association of the composition data with ~3.2K single nucleotide variant markers identified six significant single nucleotide variant markers co-associated with digestibility and another compositional trait. These markers might be used to select switchgrass genotypes with improved composition in breeding programs for biofuel and forage production. Because the SSAC continues to be characterized by collaborators in the bioenergy community, the data generated will be used to identify additional markers in higher resolution genotyping data to approach identifying the genes and alleles that cause natural variation in switchgrass cell wall quality. For example, these markers can be surveyed in the 2100-member Oklahoma Southern and Northern Lowland switchgrass collections that this project also characterized. An orthogonal approach to biodiversity studies, using comparative functional genomics permits systematic querying of how much regulatory information is likely to be transferable from dicots to grasses and use of accumulated functional genomics resources for better-characterized grass species, such as rice, itself a biomass source in global agriculture and in certain regions. The project generated and tested a number of specific hypotheses regarding cell wall transcription factors and enzymes of grasses. To aid identification of cell wall regulators, the project assembled a novel, highdepth and -quality gene association network using a general linearized model scoring system to combine rice gene network data. Using known or putative orthologs of Arabidopsis cell wall biosynthesis genes and regulators, the project pulled from this network a cell wall sub-network that includes 96 transcription factors. Reverse genetics of a co-ortholog of the Arabidopsis MYB61 transcription factor in rice revealed that this regulatory node has evolved the ability to regulate grass-specific cell wall synthesis enzymes. A transcription factor with such activity has not been previously characterized to our knowledge, representing a major conclusion of this work. Changes in gene expression in a protoplast-based assay demonstrated positive or negative roles in cell wall regulation for eleven other transcription factors from the rice gene network. Eight of fifteen (53%) of these have not previously been examined for this function. Some of these may represent novel grass-diverged cell wall regulators, while others are likely to have this function across angiosperms. A parallel effort of this project to expand knowledge of enzymes that have evolved to function in grass cell wall synthesis, revealed that a grass-diverged enzyme in rice, OsAT 5, ferulates monolignols that are naturally incorporated into grass cell walls. This finding opens potential natural selection avenues for improving biomass composition for downstream processing by weak base pretreatment. Thus, this project has significantly expanded knowledge of cell wall synthesis and regulation in rice, information that can be used in reverse genetics and synthetic biology approaches to re-engineer cell walls for improved production of biofuel and high-value products. To lay the foundation for translating these results directly for switchgrass improvement, the project employed a comparative phylogenetic analysis of the major group of cell wall transcription factors that have been found to function in cell wall regulation, the R 2R 3 MYBs. This analysis concluded that known cell wall regulators are largely conserved across switchgrass, rice, maize, poplar, and Arabidopsis. This interpretation is also largely consistent with the gene network analysis described above, though both approaches provide evidence that some co-orthologs of Arabidopsis regulators have diminished or increased in importance based on gene expression patterns. Also, several clades containing dicot cell wall regulators have expanded, consistent with the evolution of new cell wall regulators. This latter result is supported by functional analysis of the R 2R 3 MYB protein SWAM 1 in a collaboration between this project and the DOE-funded group of Dr. S. Hazen at the University of Massachusettes. The curation of the switchgrass genome through this project provides specific targets for future engineering of switchgrass cell wall regulation and may also facilitate identification of regulators that underlie the molecular markers that are genetically linked to differences in cell wall quality. With the goal of spurring further research and technological developments in lignocellulosic biofuel production, this work has been communicated to the bioenergy and cell wall communities though various presentations and publications. To date, three manuscripts have been published, two others are near to publication, three others are in an advanced state, and two to four more are likely to be written based on analyses still in progress. In addition, project participants have presented thirteen posters and talks at regional, national, and international meetings about aspects of this project. In sum, the work supported by this funding has made and communicated significant progress in identifying the genes that grasses use for cell wall synthesis and regulation, information that will be used by project participants and others to improve the efficiency of conversion of lignocellulosic biomass to biofuels.« less
ORCiD logo [1] ;  [2] ;  [2] ;  [3] ;  [3]
  1. Univ. of Oklahoma, Norman, OK (United States). Dept. of Microbiology and Plant Biology
  2. Oklahoma State Univ., Stillwater, OK (United States)
  3. Noble Foundation, Ardmore, OK (United States)
Publication Date:
OSTI Identifier:
Report Number(s):
DOE Contract Number:
Resource Type:
Technical Report
Research Org:
Univ. of Oklahoma, Norman, OK (United States)
Sponsoring Org:
USDOE Office of Science (SC), Biological and Environmental Research (BER) (SC-23)
Country of Publication:
United States