Hong sheds second sight on plant structures

Elizabeth Polsdofer

Mei Hong, a scientist with U.S. Department of Energy Ames Laboratory and professor of chemistry, is doing research that will change the game in understanding the biochemistry of plant cell walls and the way plants are grown to produce biofuels.

After two and a half years of working on a collaboration headed at the University of Kentucky, Hong is able to give second sight into the structure of plant cell walls.

Hong uses a technique that allows her to look at the molecular level of plant cell walls through a technique called solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance.

“Solid-state [nuclear magnetic resonance] has been around for half a century, but to use solid-state to look at a whole plant cell wall mixture is completely new,” Hong said.

The focus of research for Hong is to understand the genetic differences between plants and their mutations at the molecular level. By having a clear picture of the molecular level of a plant cell wall, scientists can understand the minute differences between plants and potentially breed plants that will be beneficial to the biofuel industry.

“It’s a wonderful start,” said Larry Johnson, professor of food science and human nutrition.

“You got to have the methods before you can do anything, now the question is do those [genetic] differences make a practical difference,” Johnson said.

Hong said she is working on fundamental research, which is understanding the very basic levels of a subject. Breeding plants based off their genetic differences is applied research, since it depends on the fundamental research done by Hong.

“I would like my work to be more fundamental than just helping the production of biofuels,” Hong said. “But certainly people can take the information we have learned and connect that with possibly engineering aspects.”

Johnson said being able to apply fundamental research will help farmers produce plants that are able to be better harvested for biofuel production.

“We have bred grain and crops primarily for food, feed and fiber. We’ve done that for hundreds of years. We have not bred grain or crops for biofuels,” Johnson said.

Although Hong wishes to focus more on fundamental research than applied research, Hong said her collaboration will study the cell walls of plants that have a potential to impact the energy industry.

“We’re thinking about looking at other types of plants … plants with secondary cell walls such as grass, other things that might have a more direct impact to energy production,” Hong said.

“We also want to understand the general fundamental biochemistry of plant cell walls structure. I hope that there is more general impact of this work besides just the economic incentive of biofuel production.”