Lignin impairs Cel7A degradation of in vitro lignified cellulose by impeding enzyme movement and not by acting as a sink

Zachary K. Haviland, Daguan Nong, Nerya Zexer, Ming Tien, Charles T. Anderson, William O. Hancock

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Cellulose degradation by cellulases has been studied for decades due to the potential of using lignocellulosic biomass as a sustainable source of bioethanol. In plant cell walls, cellulose is bonded together and strengthened by the polyphenolic polymer, lignin. Because lignin is tightly linked to cellulose and is not digestible by cellulases, is thought to play a dominant role in limiting the efficient enzymatic degradation of plant biomass. Removal of lignin via pretreatments currently limits the cost-efficient production of ethanol from cellulose, motivating the need for a better understanding of how lignin inhibits cellulase-catalyzed degradation of lignocellulose. Work to date using bulk assays has suggested three possible inhibition mechanisms: lignin blocks access of the enzyme to cellulose, lignin impedes progress of the enzyme along cellulose, or lignin binds cellulases directly and acts as a sink. Results: We used single-molecule fluorescence microscopy to investigate the nanoscale dynamics of Cel7A from Trichoderma reesei, as it binds to and moves along purified bacterial cellulose in vitro. Lignified cellulose was generated by polymerizing coniferyl alcohol onto purified bacterial cellulose, and the degree of lignin incorporation into the cellulose meshwork was analyzed by optical and electron microscopy. We found that Cel7A preferentially bound to regions of cellulose where lignin was absent, and that in regions of high lignin density, Cel7A binding was inhibited. With increasing degrees of lignification, there was a decrease in the fraction of Cel7A that moved along cellulose rather than statically binding. Furthermore, with increasing lignification, the velocity of processive Cel7A movement decreased, as did the distance that individual Cel7A molecules moved during processive runs. Conclusions: In an in vitro system that mimics lignified cellulose in plant cell walls, lignin did not act as a sink to sequester Cel7A and prevent it from interacting with cellulose. Instead, lignin both blocked access of Cel7A to cellulose and impeded the processive movement of Cel7A along cellulose. This work implies that strategies for improving biofuel production efficiency should target weakening interactions between lignin and cellulose surface, and further suggest that nonspecific adsorption of Cel7A to lignin is likely not a dominant mechanism of inhibition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number7
JournalBiotechnology for Biofuels and Bioproducts
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2024

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Biotechnology
  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology
  • Energy (miscellaneous)
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law

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