Rheology of transgenic switchgrass reveals practical aspects of biomass processing

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Background Mechanical properties of transgenic switchgrass have practical implications for biorefinery technologies. Presented are fundamentals for simple (thermo)mechanical measurements of genetically transformed switchgrass. Experimental basics are provided for the novice, where the intention is to promote collaboration between plant biologists and materials scientists.

Results Stem sections were subjected to two stress modes: (1) torsional oscillation in the linear response region, and (2) unidirectional torsion to failure. Specimens were analyzed while submerged/saturated in ethylene glycol, simulating natural hydration and allowing experimental temperatures above 100 °C for an improved view of the lignin glass transition. Down-regulation of the 4-Coumarate:coenzyme A ligase gene (reduced lignin content and altered monomer composition) generally resulted in less stiff and weaker stems. These observations were associated with a reduction in the temperature and activation energy of the lignin glass transition, but surprisingly with no difference in the breadth and intensity of the tan δ signal. The results showed promise in further investigations of how rheological methods relate to stem lignin content, composition, and functional properties in the field and in bioprocessing.

Conclusions Measurements such as these are complicated by small specimen size; however, torsional rheometers (relatively common in polymer laboratories) are well suited for this task. As opposed to the expense and complication of relative humidity control, solvent-submersion rheological methods effectively reveal fundamental structure/property relationships in plant tissues. Demonstrated are low-strain linear methods, and also nonlinear yield and failure analysis; the latter is very uncommon for typical rheological equipment.

Biotechnology for Biofuels. 2018 Mar 01;11(1):57