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Important Cellulose Gene Isolated

January 29, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Botanists have successfully ended a 30-year hunt for the gene that makes cellulose in plants, a finding that could lead to applications ranging from easier paper manufacturing to better corn.

Cellulose is the framework of plant cells and the world’s most abundant biopolymer. Its uses are vast: Cellulose is an important dietary fiber; it helps cotton clothes withstand wear and tear; it makes the very thin paper of coffee filters strong enough for heavy grounds.

But for all the industrial uses of cellulose, nobody knew how plants make it.

Now, Richard Williamson and colleagues at Australian National University report in Friday’s edition of the journal Science that a gene called RSW1 synthesizes the enzyme responsible for cellulose production.

Williamson’s work in the small plant Arabidopsis, a relative of mustard plants, opens the door to improved fiber technology, said Deborah Delmer, chairwoman of plant biology at the University of California, Davis.

She first identified the RSW1 gene as the probable producer of cellulose when she found it in cotton in 1996, but couldn’t prove the theory. Williamson’s lab ultimately found the genetic evidence.

Altering the cellulose ratio in trees, for example, could yield stronger timber or trees that are more easily processed into paper. Farmers could breed corn and wheat with more cellulose in the stalks so hail or wind don’t knock them over.

Scientists will study whether altering cellulose could put more fiber into each serving of food, and make flax easier to weave into linen, said Purdue University botanist Nicholas Carpita.

``All the ramifications are still to come,″ said Carpita. ``We do have the opportunity ... to maybe make better polymers.″

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