Lignin (noun, “LIG-nehn”)
Lignin helps give plants their sturdy structure. It resists decay and adds rigidity to the walls of plant cells. The woody parts of plants contain more lignin than the leafy parts. That’s why the woody parts are tougher and more rigid. And when a tree dies, the parts that take the longest to break down are the wood and bark.
Besides structural support, lignin helps plants carry water and the nutrients in that water. Much of a plant’s xylem tissue — which slurps water from the plant’s roots to its shoots — consists of lignin. Lignin repels water, allowing the liquid to glide through the xylem’s straw-like tubes without getting stuck.
Lignin’s water-repelling and rot-defying properties stem from its molecular building blocks. Lignin consists of branching networks of smaller molecules called phenols.
Lignin can include hundreds or thousands of these phenols. Networked together, they form polymers with bulky, 3-D forms. That shape differs from other common plant polymers, such as cellulose, which typically are long and thin. Lignin’s structure allows it to fill in gaps between the other materials that make up cell walls. Filling these gaps helps to strengthen cell walls.
In a sentence
Scientists used chemistry to break lignin’s networked molecules down into their subunits and make tape adhesive.