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  • Shell Center for Sustainability
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The Shell Center for Sustainability's mission is to foster an interdisciplinary program of research, outreach, and education to address actions that can be taken to ensure the sustainable development of communities' living standards, interpreted broadly, to encompass all factors affecting the overall quality of life.


Breaking It Down


Janet Braam, Ph.D., Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology, Rice University
Jennifer Rudgers, Ph.D., Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Rice University
William Hockaday, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Research Associate, Department of Earth Science, Rice University
Carrie Masiello, Ph.D., Department of Earth Science, Rice University

 Janet Braam 
Dr. Janet Braam
 Jennifer Rudgers 
Dr. Jennifer Rudgers
 Carrie Masiello
Dr. Carrie Masiello
 William Hockaday 
Dr. William Hockaday
Project Background

The objective is to expand fundamental knowledge of the genetic basis of carbon distribution in plants and understand how environmental conditions affect this distribution with the goal of improving feedstock properties for bio-based, renewable, energy generation.

Cellulose is the most abundant energy-rich biopolymer on earth and currently is the most promising source for conversion to a biofuel. In addition, because plants store CO2 below ground, the use of biofuel crops can potentially reduce global warming.

The challenge for the bioenergy field is to devise approaches that increase the ability and decrease the cost of isolating and breaking down cellulose from plant cell walls.  One major detriment to plant cell wall deconstruction is the presence of lignin in the plant cell wall. Lignin can surround the cellulose microfibrils and reduce extractability.  A major goal in feedstock optimization is to reduce the accumulation and interference caused by lignin.

We aim to investigate how carbon distribution is altered in plants as a result of the environment in which the plant is grown.  We will conduct our studies in the model plant Arabidopsis and extend these studies to switchgrass, Panicum virgatum, a feasible energy crop.  This research will shed light on the consequences of growing bioenergy crops in different environments subjected to varying stresses.

In addition, we hypothesize that plant enzymes that modify cell wall architecture during growth and development are important determinants of wall composition. We will test this hypothesis. The standard approach for quantifying lignin is time consuming, labor intensive and expensive. However, we have recently implemented a new technique for quantifying natural organic matter components within complex mixtures.  This technique can be used to estimate the lignin concentration in plant samples quickly and cheaply.  This methodology enables the quantification not only of lignin, but also of lipids, amino acids, and carbohydrates, which yields even more information toward the maximization of biofuel production as well as a clearer picture of how CO2 is stored in root systems below ground.

Field Photo

Field Photo

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