Repression of lignin biosynthesis promotes cellulose accumulation and growth in transgenic trees

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Because lignin limits the use of wood for fiber, chemical, and energy production, strategies for its downregulation are of considerable interest. We have produced transgenic aspen (Populus tremuloides Michx.) trees in which expression of a linin biosynthetic pathway gene Pt4CL1 encoding 4- coumarate:coenzyme A ligase (4CL) has been downregulated by antisense inhibition. Trees with suppressed Pt4CL1 expression exhibited up to a 45% reduction of lignin, but this was compensated for by a 15% increase in cellulose. As a result, the total lignin-cellulose mass remained essentially unchanged. Leaf, root, and stem growth were substantially enhanced, and structural integrity was maintained both at the cellular and whole-plant levels in the transgenic lines. Our results indicate that lignin and cellulose deposition could be regulated in a compensatory fashion, which may contribute to metabolic flexibility and a growth advantage to sustain the long-term structural integrity of woody perennials.

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Nature Biotechnology