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Unlocking the mystery of wood’s strength


A new discovery by a father-and-son team of researchers from the Universities of Cambridge and Warwick has unlocked a nanoscale mystery of nature, and may lead to big changes in the fields of energy and construction. Source: Digital Trends

The discovery reveals the glue-like binding relationship between Earth’s most abundant polymers, cellulose and xylan, which are found in plant cell walls and account for the strength and indigestibility of materials like wood.

“We wondered why it is so difficult to digest woody materials, so that these plants can’t easily be used to ferment to ethanol for transport biofuel, and are not very useful to feed animals,” Paul Dupree of Cambridge’s Department of Biochemistry and research said.

“They are useful for our gut health as a dietary fiber component of our food. It turns out that to understand why it is difficult to digest, we needed to discover how the components of the plant are woven into the strong and indigestible material.”

Scientists have known the shape of xylan and cellulose for some time.

Xylan is a long, winding polymer with “decorations” of sugars attached to its central thread.

Cellulose, on the other hand, is rod-like.

Years ago, Dupree and a team of researchers found that xylan’s decorations appear only on one side of the polymer.

In studying this phenomenon further, they discovered how cellulose induces xylan to unwind and attach to the cellulose molecules, creating an extraordinarily strong bond.

This finding is a major one for botany, but it may have a broader impact beyond that field, in sectors like energy, architecture, and agriculture.

“This [discovery] will allow the development of improved treatments for timber in building construction,” Mr Dupree said.

“We expect also to be able to develop less energy-intensive processes for making paper and packaging material from trees. These currently require high temperature and harsh chemical treatment of wood chips to disassemble the wood components.”

The researchers also think that the discovery may help unlock the energy potential of certain plants, and release more nutrition from previously poorly digestible foods, allowing animals to gain more benefit from certain feeds.

Mr Dupree’s father, Ray Dupree, of Warwick’s Department of Physics, was co-author of a paper describing the discovery that was published on December 21 in the journal Nature Communications.