Plants naturally produce the lipid-derived polyester cutin, which is found in the plant cuticle that is deposited at the outermost extracellular matrix of the epidermis covering nearly all aboveground tissues. Being at the interface between the cell and the external environment, cutin and the cuticle play important roles in the protection of plants from several stresses. A number of enzymes involved in the synthesis of cutin monomers have recently been identified, including several P450s and one acyl-CoA synthetase, thus representing the first steps toward the understanding of polyester formation and, potentially, polyester engineering to improve the tolerance of plants to stresses, such as drought, and for industrial applications. However, numerous processes underlying cutin synthesis, such as a controlled polymerization, still remain elusive.
Suberin is a second polyester found in the extracellular matrix, most often synthesized in root tissues and during secondary growth. Similar to cutin, the function of suberin is to seal off the respective tissue to inhibit water loss and contribute to resistance to pathogen attack. Being the main constituent of cork, suberin is a plant polyester that has already been industrially exploited. Genetic engineering may be worth exploring in order to change the polyester properties for either different applications or to increase cork production in other species.
Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) are attractive polyesters of 3-hydroxyacids because of their properties as bioplastics and elastomers. Although PHAs are naturally found in a wide variety of bacteria, biotechnology has aimed at producing these polymers in plants as a source of cheap and renewable biodegradable plastics. Synthesis of PHA containing various monomers has been demonstrated in the cytosol, plastids, and peroxisomes of plants. Several biochemical pathways have been modified in order to achieve this, including the isoprenoid pathway, the fatty acid biosynthetic pathway, and the fatty acid β-oxidation pathway. PHA synthesis has been demonstrated in a number of plants, including monocots and dicots, and up to 40% PHA per gram dry weight has been demonstrated in Arabidopsis thaliana. Despite some successes, production of PHA in crop plants remains a challenging project. PHA synthesis at high level in vegetative tissues, such as leaves, is associated with chlorosis and reduced growth. The challenge for the future is to succeed in synthesis of PHA copolymers with a narrow range of monomer compositions, at levels that do not compromise plant productivity. This goal will undoubtedly require a deeper understanding of plant biochemical pathways and how carbon fluxes through these pathways can be manipulated, areas where plant ‘‘omics’’ can bring very valuable contributions.
Key Words: Arabidopsis, β-oxidation, cuticle, cutin, fatty acid, metabolic engineering, peroxisome, plastid, PHA, PHB, polyester, polyhydroxyalkanoates, polyhydroxybutyrate, suberin.
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