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Phytochemistry. 2002 Oct;61(3):221-94.

Trends in lignin modification: a comprehensive analysis of the effects of genetic manipulations/mutations on lignification and vascular integrity.

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  • 1Institute of Biological Chemistry, Washington State University, Pullman 99164-6340, USA.
  • 2WA St U, Pullman


A comprehensive assessment of lignin configuration in transgenic and mutant plants is long overdue. This review thus undertook the systematic analysis of trends manifested through genetic and mutational manipulations of the various steps associated with monolignol biosynthesis; this included consideration of the downstream effects on organized lignin assembly in the various cell types, on vascular function/integrity, and on plant growth and development. As previously noted for dirigent protein (homologs), distinct and sophisticated monolignol forming metabolic networks were operative in various cell types, tissues and organs, and form the cell-specific guaiacyl (G) and guaiacyl-syringyl (G-S) enriched lignin biopolymers, respectively. Regardless of cell type undergoing lignification, carbon allocation to the different monolignol pools is apparently determined by a combination of phenylalanine availability and cinnamate-4-hydroxylase/"p-coumarate-3-hydroxylase" (C4H/C3H) activities, as revealed by transcriptional and metabolic profiling. Downregulation of either phenylalanine ammonia lyase or cinnamate-4-hydroxylase thus predictably results in reduced lignin levels and impaired vascular integrity, as well as affecting related (phenylpropanoid-dependent) metabolism. Depletion of C3H activity also results in reduced lignin deposition, albeit with the latter being derived only from hydroxyphenyl (H) units, due to both the guaiacyl (G) and syringyl (S) pathways being blocked. Apparently the cells affected are unable to compensate for reduced G/S levels by increasing the amounts of H-components. The downstream metabolic networks for G-lignin enriched formation in both angiosperms and gymnosperms utilize specific cinnamoyl CoA O-methyltransferase (CCOMT), 4-coumarate:CoA ligase (4CL), cinnamoyl CoA reductase (CCR) and cinnamyl alcohol dehydrogenase (CAD) isoforms: however, these steps neither affect carbon allocation nor H/G designations, this being determined by C4H/C3H activities. Such enzymes thus fulfill subsidiary processing roles, with all (except CCOMT) apparently being bifunctional for both H and G substrates. Their severe downregulation does, however, predictably result in impaired monolignol biosynthesis, reduced lignin deposition/vascular integrity, (upstream) metabolite build-up and/or shunt pathway metabolism. There was no evidence for an alternative acid/ester O-methyltransferase (AEOMT) being involved in lignin biosynthesis. The G/S lignin pathway networks are operative in specific cell types in angiosperms and employ two additional biosynthetic steps to afford the corresponding S components, i.e. through introduction of an hydroxyl group at C-5 and its subsequent O-methylation. [These enzymes were originally classified as ferulate-5-hydroxylase (F5H) and caffeate O-methyltransferase (COMT), respectively.] As before, neither step has apparently any role in carbon allocation to the pathway; hence their individual downregulation/manipulation, respectively, gives either a G enriched lignin or formation of the well-known S-deficient bm3 "lignin" mutant, with cell walls of impaired vascular integrity. In the latter case, COMT downregulation/mutation apparently results in utilization of the isoelectronic 5-hydroxyconiferyl alcohol species albeit in an unsuccessful attempt to form G-S lignin proper. However, there is apparently no effect on overall G content, thereby indicating that deposition of both G and S moieties in the G/S lignin forming cells are kept spatially, and presumably temporally, fully separate. Downregulation/mutation of further downstream steps in the G/S network [i.e. utilizing 4CL, CCR and CAD isoforms] gives predictable effects in terms of their subsidiary processing roles: while severe downregulation of 4CL gave phenotypes with impaired vascular integrity due to reduced monolignol supply, there was no evidence in support of increased growth and/or enhanced cellulose biosynthesis. CCR and CAD downregulation/mutations also established that a depletion in monolignol supply reduced both lignin contents supply reduced both lignin contents and vascular integrity, with a concomitant shift towards (upstream) metabolite build-up and/or shunting. The extraordinary claims of involvement of surrogate monomers (2-methoxybenzaldehyde, feruloyl tyramine, vanillic acid, etc.) in lignification were fully disproven and put to rest, with the investigators themselves having largely retracted former claims. Furthermore analysis of the well-known bm1 mutation, a presumed CAD disrupted system, apparently revealed that both G and S lignin components were reduced. This seems to imply that there is no monolignol specific dehydrogenase, such as the recently described sinapyl alcohol dehydrogenase (SAD) for sinapyl alcohol formation. Nevertheless, different CAD isoforms of differing homology seem to be operative in different lignifying cell types, thereby giving the G-enriched and G/S-enriched lignin biopolymers, respectively. For the G-lignin forming network, however, the CAD isoform is apparently catalytically less efficient with all three monolignols than that additionally associated with the corresponding G/S lignin forming network(s), which can more efficiently use all three monolignols. However, since CAD does not determine either H, G, or S designation, it again serves in a subsidiary role-albeit using different isoforms for different cell wall developmental and cell wall type responses. The results from this analysis contrasts further with speculations of some early investigators, who had viewed lignin assembly as resulting from non-specific oxidative coupling of monolignols and subsequent random polymerization. At that time, though, the study of the complex biological (biochemical) process of lignin assembly had begun without any of the (bio)chemical tools to either address or answer the questions posed as to how its formation might actually occur. Today, by contrast, there is growing recognition of both sophisticated and differential control of monolignol biosynthetic networks in different cell types, which serve to underscore the fact that complexity of assembly need not be confused any further with random formation. Moreover, this analysis revealed another factor which continues to cloud interpretations of lignin downregulation/mutational analyses, namely the serious technical problems associated with all aspects of lignin characterization, whether for lignin quantification, isolation of lignin-enriched preparations and/or in determining monomeric compositions. For example, in the latter analyses, some 50-90% of the lignin components still cannot be detected using current methodologies, e.g. by thioacidolysis cleavage and nitrobenzene oxidative cleavage. This deficiency in lignin characterization thus represents one of the major hurdles remaining in delineating how lignin assembly (in distinct cell types) and their configuration actually occurs.

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