Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the BioEnergy Science Center (BESC) combined different microscopic imaging methods to gain a greater understanding of the relationships between biomass cell wall structure and enzyme digestibility, a breakthrough that could lead to optimizing sugar yields and lowering the costs of making biofuels.
A paper on the breakthrough, “How Does Plant Cell Wall Nanoscale Architecture Correlate with Enzymatic Digestibility?” appears in the current issue of Science Magazine.
Principal Investigator Dr. Shi-You Ding of NREL said the imaging technologies allowed the interdisciplinary team of scientists to view the plants’ architecture at scales ranging from millimeter to nanometer, a range of 1 million to one.
That allowed them to learn not just the plant cell wall architecture, but also the localization of the enzymes responsible for deconstruction of the cell wall polymers and the effects of enzyme action on the cell wall.
They didn’t have to resort to wet chemistry, which ascertains the molecular makeup of a substance at the cost of destroying the spatial relationships. “The typical way to understand the structure of biomass is to break down all the individual components so they can be analyzed,” Ding, a biologist, said. “The problem with that method is that then you don’t know where all the components came from. You lose the structural integrity.”
That’s a crucial loss, because an understanding of how enzymes digest plants requires an understanding of where everything is inside the cell walls.
“Our imaging techniques gave us a deeper understanding of the cell wall structure and the process of enzyme hydrolysis of cell-wall carbohydrate polymers to release simple sugars,” Ding said. “That allows us to optimize the process and reduce costs.”
Dr. Paul Gilna, the director of the BESC, in which the project was conducted, added: “This work greatly improves our ability to closely examine the mechanisms behind the scientific improvements we have developed, all of which are targeted at enabling the emergence of a sustainable cellulosic biofuels industry.” BESC is a multi-institutional Bioenergy Research Center supported by the Office of Biological and Environmental Research in the Department of Energy Office of Science.
The correlative imaging in real time allowed the team to assess the impact of lignin removal on biomass hydrolysis and to see the nanometer-scale changes in cell wall structure. And, that allowed them to see how those changes affected the rate at which enzymes from two different organisms digested the plant cell walls.
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