New method to increase usability of wood patented

Researchers are able to increase the plants’ production of lignin, which is used to make vanillin, fuel, and construction materials.

Wood can be used as fuel, but also as a raw material for the production of other substances, such as vanillin. A new method to increase the usability of wood has been recently patented by a team of Czech and Norwegian researchers led by Jan Hejátko from the Masaryk University Ceitec research institute.

The team headed by Hejátko at the Mendel Genomics and Proteomics Centre has long been involved in the study of plant hormones – cytokinins – that regulate the growth of plants and the production of biomass.

“We found and described one of the mechanisms that cytokinins use to regulate growth and the related production of lignin, a natural polymer that plants use to strengthen their cell walls,” say Hejátko and Vojtěch Didi. The latter is the first author of the paper describing the basic research behind the patent, which is currently being prepared for publication.

Lignin and lignocellulose in general are promising renewable raw materials currently used in the chemical industry to produce ship fuel or vanillin, which is the most frequently used flavouring agent globally. Lignin products can also be used in construction materials. After cellulose, lignin is the most commonly used polymer in the world.

“We were able to discover a way to use plant hormones to increase the production of lignin in plants,” says the biologist, adding that when wood is used as fuel, its lignin content is essential, as it is one of the factors that determine its heating value.

The patented methods is based on “turning off” the receptors of plant growth hormones in woody plants – or their biosynthesis as such – to increase lignin production. The success of the research team was also made possible by their cooperation with biologists from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, who specialise in plant cell walls and who worked with the Ceitec MU experts as a part of a Norwegian Grants project.

“We were able to explain the basic principle of the plants’ functioning and we suggested a method that can increase the production of lignin,” says Hejátko. “Right now, we are looking for a partner who could implement the procedure in practice and who would help us breed selected types of woody plants and bring them to customers.” He adds that they worked on patenting the method with the MU Technology Transfer Office.

In his opinion, the method could be used, for example, in poplar, which is one of the fastest growing Czech softwoods. Moreover, Norway has recently built a factory for the production and processing of lignin that sells lignin products to the whole world.