Scientists have made an unexpected discovery about the arrangement of molecules in plant cell walls. This centers on a material called polymer xylan. This material comprises a third of wood matter. Xylans are polysaccharides made from units of xylose (a pentose sugar). They make up to 35 percent of hardwoods and up to 25 percent of softwoods.
By using advanced imaging technology based on Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, scientists have found that the xylan polymer has an unexpected shape inside the plant cell walls. This was shown using a combination of two- and three-dimensional maps of the material’s molecular structure. The use of the imaging technology has given an insight into the dynamics of molecules in solution and the solid state.
For the study, the researchers used the woody stalks of thale cress. This is of interest because plant cell walls provide the mechanical strength to plants. It is thought that understanding the structure will advance scientific understanding of plants used as renewable materials and for building construction.
Xylan coatings are special because of their properties which are designed to meet particular requirements for surface treatment. This means that they also make for ideal lubricants.
The study has been undertaken as a collaborative project between the Universities of Warwick and Cambridge. The research output has been published in the journal Biochemistry. The research paper is called “Probing the Molecular Architecture ofArabidopsis thalianaSecondary Cell Walls Using Two- and Three-Dimensional13C Solid State Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy.”
Xylan has other potential uses. For example, scientists have found that Xylan from corn cobs represents a promising polymer for drug delivery. This is due to the material’s low density and very cohesive flow properties.