The NREL scientists found that the gummy, poly-aromatic non-sugar lignin in plants interferes with enzymes' ability to access the polysaccharides in the cell wall the stuff that both the enzymes and the industry want.
So, they concluded, ideal pre-treatment should focus on getting rid of the lignin while leaving the structural polysaccharides within the cell walls intact, thus leaving a relatively loose, porous native-like structure that allows easy access by the enzymes and rapid digestion, as opposed to pretreatments that remove some of the spongier carbohydrate polymers and allow the remainder to collapse into tighter and less-accessible structures. To continue the building dis-assembly and salvage analogy, removal of the lignin is like unlocking all of the doors in the building so that the workers can get in to pull out re-useable materials, but without collapsing the overall structure so that access is blocked.
By understanding the changing structure of the plant material, scientists can learn more about how enzymes work.
"The enzyme has evolved to deal with the real structure, not the pretreated, artificially decomposed one," Ding said. "So to understand how the enzyme goes about its business, it is really important to know where cell wall components are located, as well as the various modes of enzyme action."
"Then we can optimize the whole process," Ding said. "By observing where cellulase enzymes are localized and the nanostructural changes in the plant cell wall architecture that their actions produce, we hope to suggest rational strategies for more cost effective pretreatments and better enzymes."
|Contact: David Glickson|
DOE/National Renewable Energy Laboratory