Like barley and other cereals, wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) accumulates branched graminan-type fructans containing both beta-(2, 1) and beta-(2,6) fructosyl linkages, mainly with a quite low degree of polymerization (DP). 1&6-kestotetraose (bifurcose) is the major fructan oligosaccharide accumulating in crown tissues and leaves of cereals exposed to chilling. The fructan exohydrolase (FEH) cDNAs 1-FEH w1 and w2 were previously cloned from wheat crowns sampled in mid-November. Here, we report the cloning and functional analysis of another FEH cDNA from a mid-November wheat crown cDNA library. The cDNA encodes a long open reading frame (ORF) of 595 amino acids. Like other FEHs, it has a low iso-electric point (5.2) and it groups together with cell-wall type invertases and not with vacuolar invertases. The deduced amino acid sequence shows 67% identity to wheat 1-FEH w1 and w2. Functional characterization of the recombinant proteins in Pichia pastoris demonstrated that the recombinant enzyme had FEH activity towards the pure compounds 1-kestose, 6-kestose, 1,1-nystose and 1,1,1-kestopentaose. However, when incubated with its putative natural substrates (a mixture of low DP graminans from wheat crowns), it was shown that 1&6-kestotetraose (bifurcose) was preferentially removed from the graminan mixture. High DP wheat graminan and bacterial levan were only poor substrates. No hydrolase activities could be detected towards sucrose and high DP inulin, convincingly demonstrating that the enzyme is not a classic invertase or 1-FEH. The enzyme was tenned 6&1-FEH w1. Northern blot analyses showed that 6&1-FEH w1 was expressed in crown tissue from autumn through winter under snow, while the expression levels in leaves were minimal or not detectable. The results strongly suggest that this unique FEH might play an important role in the degradation of branched, low DP wheat graminan (like bifurcose) in wheat crowns in the high fructan content season. (C) 2005 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.