Biofuels have recently been the subject of intense debate with regard to‘food versus fuel’. Consequently, attention has focused upon so-called ‘second-generation’ biofuels that use alternatives to food-based feedstocks. In the best-developed forms of second-generation biofuels, sugars from starch digestion could be replaced with sugars released from the plant cell walls. This biomass could come from either agricultural residue, such as part of the maize culm, or from purpose grown biofuel crops, such as Miscanthus or Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), that generate huge yields even when grown on marginal land with minimal agricultural inputs. For these and other potential bioenergy crops such as trees, the majority of the plant biomass is composed of woody secondary cell walls. If all cell wall sugars were readily accessible to fermenting micro-organisms, a 5 kg log could theoretically produce up to 2.5 litres of ethanol. The secondary cell walls are frequently the first line of defence against pests and pathogens, as well as providing structure and support for upward plant growth (Figure 1). Consequently, by their very nature, secondary cell walls are designed for strength and to resist degradation. The compact organization of the wall makes its digestion, a process known as saccharification, very difficult so biomass is currently too costly to be a viable feedstock. Knowledge of how the walls are constructed, however, would allow us to efficiently deconstruct them. This article gives an overview of secondary walls and potential modifications expected to be beneficial to improved biofuel production.

This content is only available as a PDF.