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Frontiers of Science 2021

Sustainability: How Science Can Help Achieve
the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals

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Sunshine Into Wood: How Plants Build Their Cell Walls, a Gigaton Source of Renewable Materials and Energy

February 13, 2021
Presented by Daniel J. Cosgrove
Professor, Department of Biology

Daniel Cosgrove for the 2021 Frontiers of Science.

Plants possess the truly astonishing ability to convert sunlight, air, and water into complex polymeric materials such as wood, a global-scale source of renewable materials and energy. Wood has many aspects: In trees, it functions as structural support and water-transport system between the roots and the leaves; it is made of cell walls that when young can grow and extend but later become thick, stiff, and inextensible; in human commerce, wood is the raw material for production of lumber, paper, cellulose-based polymers, charcoal, and other materials; as a rich source of stored solar energy, it is used to produce heat, electricity, and transportation fuels. Wood is a complex material, made of different types of polymers fashioned at the nanometer scale in a complex manner. What is its structure? Why do different woods have different properties? How do plants make it? What are the remaining unsolved scientific mysteries in wood formation? How might we tailor wood for special purposes? I will address these questions and along the way introduce some of the state-of-the-art methods used in the Center for Lignocellulose Structure and Formation, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, to uncover the secrets of how plant make their cell walls.

Daniel Cosgrove studies the mechanism of plant cell growth, with a focus on the structure of extensible plant cell walls and the mechanisms by which they stretch irreversibly during growth. His research group discovered a group of wall-loosening proteins named “expansins” that are central to plant growth. Cosgrove and collaborators use biophysical, molecular, and genomic approaches to understand the molecular activities of expansins, as well as their biological functions and their evolution. He is the founding director of the Center for Lignocellulose Structure and Formation, an Energy Frontiers Research Center funded by the U.S. Department of Energy since 2009 that operates as a coordinated effort by 16 research groups at seven universities and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The center’s mission is to develop a nanoscale understanding of cellulosic cell walls, the energy-rich structural material in plants, forming the foundation for new technologies in sustainable energy and novel biomaterials. Following his undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of Massachusetts and Stanford University, respectively, he went to Germany and Seattle for research visits before joining the biology department at Penn State, back when dinosaurs still roamed Happy Valley.