Center for Lignocellulose Structure and Formation


Plant Cell Walls: A Symphony of Solid Sunlight
podcast art: simulated meadow scene using microscopy images, figures dancing and clipart of music notes, instruments, sun, vehicles, fuel station etc


MEL DEYOUNG (Narrator): From the Center for Lignocellulose Structure and Formation, it’s the Sounds of Science Podcast.
Have you ever wondered what molecules might sound like?

The cell walls of plants, which we rely on for food, building materials, clothing, and energy, are arranged in complex patterns and layers, much like the sounds of instruments in an orchestra come together to form a symphony.
(sound of orchestra tuning)

But where do cell walls begin?
It all starts at the Sun.
(wind chimes begin)

The sun makes energy in the form of light particles, which dance across the vastness of space and strike the Earth like a percussionist might strike a set of chimes

Plants have the amazing ability to capture sunlight and use it to make sugars, the “bass” molecules that they use to build their cell walls
(string bass begins)

For instance, groups of proteins, called Cellulose Synthases, play together like sextets of string trios at the cell surface to pluck sugars from inside the cell and spin them into stiff cables called cellulose that strengthen the wall.
(strings begin)

Much like wind instruments add layers of complexity to a composition, flexible polymers called pectins and hemicelluloses are made inside the cell and blasted into the wall among the layers of cellulose.
(brass begins)

Other proteins called expansins dance through the cell wall, alighting on other wall components and changing how they interact to allow plant cells to grow.
(flute melody begins)

After cell growth is complete, lignin, the most complex part of the cell wall, can polymerize polyphonically to help the plant stand upright.
(pipe organ begins)

We can harvest the energy stored in plant cell walls, for example when we burn wood in a campfire, eat fruits and vegetables, or use biofuels in an automobile.
So, the next time you wonder about what molecules might sound like, imagine the symphony of the cell wall playing every day, around the world to make solid sunlight for the benefit of humanity.
Want to learn more? Go to for more information about plant cell walls.

CHARLIE ANDERSON: This work was supported by the Center for Lignocellulose Structure and Formation, an Energy Frontiers Research Center funded by the US Department of Energy, Office of Science.