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October 25, 2001
Vol. 28, No. 12



The politics of interpreting Islam

UT scholars: World events challenge journalism ethics

Archer Fellows serve in Washington, D.C.

ExxonMobil gives $158,500

UT staffer gives $700,00 for scholarships

UT team seeks to save Ukraine historic site

Inaugural D. Harrington Symposium Nov. 2

Longhorn Halloween Oct. 28

Dr. Laura Flawn dies in collision

UT's bell ringer making music for nearly 50 years

Professor Jaime Delgado dies

UT grad students empowered in wake of Sept. 11 tragedy

UT researchers discover wood pulp replacement

UT engineers unlock defense body's protectve systems

New process detects cancer's ability to spread

Dr. Wood leads team in $80 million quake study

Undergrad biomedical engineering program created

FACTS brochures available

Faculty Council

News Briefs


Hearts of TX Campaign ends Oct. 31

UT book de-mystifies directing


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University of Texas at Austin researchers announce discovery that could eliminate need to harvest trees for wood, pulp

Cellulose in a new group of organisms may be a promising new resource for the industrial production of the substance and could eventually eliminate the need to harvest trees for wood or pulp, researchers at The University of Texas at Austin say.

The discovery of cellulose biosynthesis in nine species of cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, also may be the source of the genetic material used for cellulose biosynthesis in present-day plants such as trees and cotton.

blue-green algae
Gene sequencing projects at the university offer evidence of cellulose in diverse types of blue-green algae.

The findings of the researchers, who include David R. Nobles, Dr. Dwight K. Romanovicz and Dr. R. Malcolm Brown Jr., have been published in the October issue of Plant Physiology.

Nobles, lead author of the paper, is a third-year graduate student with Brown, who holds the Johnson & Johnson Centennial Chair in Plant Biology in the Section of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology in the School of Biological Sciences. Romanovicz is a research associate in the Brown laboratory.

Blue-green algae are among the most ancient of today’s living organisms and have been in existence for more than 2.8 billion years. Fossils of forms that resemble cyanobacteria have been dated as far back as 3.5 billion years.

Cellulose is a biopolymer that plants use as the primary building block for their cell walls. Cellulose is important economically because it is the major source of such significant and useful plant products as wood, cotton and flax.

"Although cellulose biosynthesis among the cyanobacteria has been suggested previously, we present the first conclusive evidence, to our knowledge, of the presence of cellulose in these organisms," Nobles said.

Brown said an exciting future possibility based on this discovery could be industrial production of cellulose from cyanobacteria.

Nobles, Romanovicz, and Brown
Front: David Nobles, Back Right: Dwight Romanovicz, Back Left: Dr. R. Malcolm Brown Jr. Nobles is a third-year graduate student with Brown in the Section of  Molecular Genetics and Microbiology in the School of Biological Sciences. Romanovicz is a research associate in the Brown lab.

"If industrial production from this source were to be achieved," Brown said, "we might never need to harvest trees again for wood or pulp. In the future, we could possibly use cyanobacterial cellulose."

Brown said cyanobacteria inhabit vast, incredibly diverse environments ranging from freshwater lakes and ponds, to hypersaline water, to deserts where rainfall never has been recorded.

Cyanobacteria are common in the dry valleys of Antarctica and can live embedded in the surface of rocks. Some cyanobacteria do not require fresh water, nitrate-based fertilizer or even farmable land to grow and flourish.

From the standpoint of the evolutionary history of life, Brown said the discovery also "has shown that the cyanobacterial genes for cellulose production are closely related to those genes in land plants. This strongly suggests that the genetic code for the major building blocks for cellulose production of land plants came directly from the cyanobacteria."

The researchers reviewed databases developed from recent gene sequencing projects in their lab at The University of Texas at Austin and throughout the world looking for evidence of the presence of cellulose in diverse types of cyanobacteria. No previous research has demonstrated biosynthesis taking place in these types of microorganisms.

The researchers used microscopy and x-ray analysis to determine that cellulose was present in six strains of five genera of blue-green algae. Brown said colloidal gold can be coupled with an enzyme, cellubiohydrolase I as a tag. This enzyme specifically binds to cellulose as it begins to degrade in nature. Thus, it is possible to identify cellulose using this approach. Brown said gold labeling alone indicated the presence of cellulose in four additional strains.

"The genetic analysis suggestions a close relationship between vascular plants and cyanobacterial cellulose synthases," Nobles said.

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