Biofuels are a source of energy created by processing fast-growing plants as opposed to matter that has taken millions of years to form.
An international team of scientists from the UK, Belgium and the US has identified a new enzyme associated with lignin, a major component of plant cell walls that limits their conversion to energy by reducing the accessibility of sugar molecules necessary for biofuel production. The lignin has to be removed through an energy-consuming process, therefore plants with a lower amount of lignin, or containing lignin that is easier to break down, are ideally suited for the process.
Experts in plant genetics, biochemistry and chemical analysis teamed up to identify a key enzyme named caffeoyl shikimate esterase (CSE). By knocking it out, the scientists found that it resulted in 36% less lignin per gram of stem material.
The remaining lignin also had an altered structure which contributed to a more efficient conversion of biomass to energy.
The findings are published online in this week's issue of Science Express magazine.
Professor Claire Halpin, of Dundee University, said: "It looks like it could be very useful in trying to manipulate plant biomass to generate biofuels and other chemicals from non-food crops."
The study was a collaboration between Dundee University, the James Hutton Institute, VIB research institute and Ghent University in Belgium and the University of Wisconsin in the US.