Improving digestibility of roughage cell walls will improve ruminant animal performance and reduce loss of nutrients to the environment. The main digestibility impediment for dicotyledonous plants is highly lignified secondary cell walls, notably in stem secondary xylem, which become almost non-digestible. Digestibility of grasses is slowed severely by lignification of most tissues, but these cell walls remain largely digestible. Cell wall lignification creates an access barrier to potentially digestible wall material by rumen bacteria if cells have not been physically ruptured. Traditional breeding has focused on increasing total dry matter digestibility rather than cell wall digestibility, which has resulted in minimal reductions in cell wall lignification. Brown midrib mutants in some annual grasses exhibit small reductions in lignin concentration and improved cell wall digestibility. Similarly, transgenic approaches down-regulating genes in monolignol synthesis have produced plants with reduced lignin content and improved cell wall digestibility. While major reductions in lignin concentration have been associated with poor plant fitness, smaller reductions in lignin provided measurable improvements in digestibility without significantly impacting agronomic fitness. Additional targets for genetic modification to enhance digestibility and improve roughages for use as biofuel feedstocks are discussed; including manipulating cell wall polysaccharide composition, novel lignin structures, reduced lignin/polysaccharide cross-linking, smaller lignin polymers, enhanced development of non-lignified tissues, and targeting specific cell types. Greater tissue specificity of transgene expression will be needed to maximize benefits while avoiding negative impacts on plant fitness.cauliflower mosiac virus (CaMV) 35S promoter.
- Cell wall