First look at cellulose’s early production could hold keys to bacteria-free medical devices, better biofuel

By Jared SagoffMay 14, 2013

Produced by plants as well as algae and some bacteria, cellulose is one of nature’s most common macromolecules, and actually the most prevalent biological polymer on earth. 

By using the high-energy X-rays produced by the Advanced Photon Source (APS) at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, researchers from the University of Virginia have discovered how cellulose is produced at the molecular level.

According to lead author Jochen Zimmer, cellulose is produced by an enzyme complex that forms its own channel for transporting the polymer out of the cell. The scientists used the the General Medical Sciences and Cancer Institutes Structural Biology Facility (GM/CA) beamline at the APS to map the three-dimensional structure of the enzyme complex. 

“By capturing the crystal structure of part of a protein complex that both synthesizes and transfers cellulose out of a bacterium one sugar unit at a time, this work provides a window into the details of a unique cellular mechanism,” said Pamela Marino of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which partly funded the work.

The discovery could offer two distinct benefits. First, cellulose is one of the major sugars that could be converted to various kinds of fuel alcohols – like ethanol or butanol. By understanding the mechanism behind cellulose production, scientists could perhaps in the future engineer plants with more fuel-ready cellulose polymers.

Additionally, bacteria use cellulose to create communal coatings known as biofilms that make them harder to kill. “If we can prevent biofilm formation, we would expect to make it easier to get rid of the bacteria – to actually kill it,” Zimmer said. “And you could also prevent them from adhering to the surgical devices and other tools used in hospitals.”

The paper, "Crystallographic snapshot of cellulose synthesis and membrane translocation," appeared in the Jan. 10 issue of Nature.