Lignin is a natural component of plant cell walls, the scaffolding that surrounds each cell and plays a pivotal role in plants' ability to grow against gravity and reach heights ranging from stubbly grasses to the sky-scraping splendor of redwoods. But lignin is a problem for scientists interested in converting plant biomass to biofuels and other sustainable biobased products. Lignin makes it hard to break down the plant matter so its carbon-rich building blocks can be converted into forms suitable for generating energy or running automobiles.
A simple solution might be to engineer plants with less lignin. But previous attempts to do this have often resulted in weaker plants and stunted growth—essentially putting the brakes on biomass production.