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Re-routing the phenylpropanoid pathway and its implications on plant growth
The phenylpropanoid pathway gives rise to a wide variety of specialized metabolites, but the majority of carbon flux going through this pathway is directed towards the synthesis of the lignin monomers: p-coumaryl alcohol, coniferyl alcohol and sinapyl alcohol. Lignin is a major impediment in biomass saccharification, which negatively affects animal feed and biofuel production. In an effort to improve biomass for the latter purposes, researchers have altered the polymer through genetic manipulations and generated biomass with lower recalcitrance to saccharification; however, in many cases these efforts have resulted in plant dwarfism. To date, we do not have a full understanding of the extent of lignin modifications a plant is able to tolerate without affecting its growth. More importantly, the mechanism that links dwarfism and modifications in lignin content and composition remains unknown. To contribute to answering these questions, we designed a strategy to incorporate a novel monomer into the lignin of Arabidopsis thaliana. We used mutants in genes that code for enzymes and regulators of the phenylpropanoid pathway to redirect the pathway’s flux towards the synthesis of p-coumaraldehyde and prevent the incorporation of p-coumaryl alcohol. Despite being mutated for the genes typically considered to be required for monolignol biosynthesis, the plants we generated continue to incorporate p-coumaryl alcohol into their lignin. This result suggests that the pathway’s architecture has not been completely elucidated and that there are more enzymes involved in lignification than previously thought. Additionally, we explored the connection between perturbations in phenylpropanoid metabolism and plant growth, by using an inducible system to track the changes in gene expression and metabolism that occur when phenylpropanoid metabolism is restored in a lignin biosynthetic mutant. The use of an inducible system allowed us to not only determine the metabolic processes affected in this mutant, but the proximal sequence of events that lead to restored growth when a functional copy of the mutant gene is induced. Finally, we redirected the flux through the pathway to assess the effects of simultaneously modulating lignin content and composition. Through this project we discovered that redirecting phenylpropanoid flux towards the synthesis of sinapyl alcohol in lignin-deficient mutant backgrounds, results in plant dwarfism. The growth impairment of these mutants can be overcome by providing exogenous coniferyl alcohol, suggesting that dwarfism in these mutants is caused by deficiency in coniferyl alcohol and/or derivatives thereof and not lignin alone. Altogether these projects allowed us to define the cellular processes affected by perturbations in phenylpropanoid homeostasis and the role of other phenylpropanoids besides lignin in this process.