Scientists found out what regulates flexibility of plant fibre

Plants are always swinging in the wing, which means they have to be pretty flexible. But they also have to be very strong not to break when flexing. On the other hand, plants also have to be pretty rigid to be able to stand upright and grow towards the sun. How do they manage it? Well, fibre is the answer. A new study from the University of Queensland and KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden revealed how fibre shapes the structure of plant cell walls.

Young trees swing in the wind very freely – they are very flexible and yet rigid enough to grow upwards. Image credit: Nirajan pant via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Fibre in question is cellulose. It provides the strength to plants and is able to stretch and compress, providing that crucial flexibility. Cellulose is also what paper is made from. And it is a lot of what doctors tell you to eat when they say you need more fibre. It sort of works like a broom – it sweeps out all the unnecessary stuff from your body. However, there is still a lot we don’t understand about how fibres are shaping cells of the plants.

Now scientists discovered that hemicelluloses, a family of cell wall polymers, are key in balancing the need for rigidity with the flexibility. Hemicelluloses, alongside the cellulose and lignins, constitute building blocks for the core of the plant. Lignins provide the water-proofing, cellulose creates rigidity and hemicellulose until now was a bit of a mystery. Scientists took a closer look into two of its main components – xylans and mannans – and found that the hemicellulose is responsible for regulating plant’s ability to stretch and compress. These findings could have huge implications – from wound healing in plants, to better crops to our own gut microbiome.

Mike Gidley, one of the authors of the study, said: “Our work creates the basis for a new cellulose chemistry in which xylans and mannans are added to make composites with useful properties. This means new possibilities for developing better, environmentally-sustainable plant-based materials, as well as selecting natural plant fibres with desirable properties in agriculture and food.”

More than anything, this is a basis for new research. Scientists hope to find out more about how fibre helps our gut microbiome. They want to know how plant cells walls, or fibre, break down in the gut. At the same time humans depend on plants a lot for food and feed, which means it is important to improve our crops, make them more resilient and nutritious.

It is interesting how much we still don’t know about plants and our interactions with them. We need to know more in order to feed the growing population and create better fibre for various products.


Source: University of Queensland

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