Grass xylan structural variation suggests functional specialisation and distinctive interaction with cellulose and lignin.
Xylan is the most abundant non-cellulosic polysaccharide in grass cell walls, and it has important structural roles. The name glucuronoarabinoxylan (GAX) is used to describe this variable hemicellulose. It has a linear backbone of β-1,4-xylose (Xyl) residues which may be substituted with α-1,2-linked (4-O-methyl)-glucuronic acid (GlcA), α-1,3-linked arabinofuranose (Araf), and sometimes acetylation at the O-2 and/or O-3 positions. The role of these substitutions remains unclear, although there is increasing evidence that they affect the way xylan interacts with other cell wall components, particularly cellulose and lignin. Here, we used substitution-dependent endo-xylanase enzymes to investigate the variability of xylan substitution in grass culm cell walls. We show that there are at least three different types of xylan: (a) an arabinoxylan with evenly distributed Araf substitutions without GlcA (AXe); (b) a glucuronoarabinoxylan with clustered GlcA modifications (GAXc) and (c) a highly substituted glucuronoarabinoxylan (hsGAX). Immunolocalization of AXe and GAXc in Brachypodium distachyon culms revealed that these xylan types are not restricted to a few cell types but are instead widely detected in Brachypodium cell walls. We hypothesise that there are functionally specialised xylan types within the grass cell wall. The even substitutions of AXe may permit folding and binding on the surface of cellulose fibrils, whereas the more complex substitutions of the other xylans may support a role in the matrix and interaction with other cell wall components.