Lignin is a complex aromatic biopolymer that strengthens and waterproofs plant secondary cell walls, enabling mechanical stability in trees and long-distance water transport in xylem. Lignin removal is a key step in paper production and biomass conversion to biofuels, motivating efforts to re-engineer lignin biosynthesis. However, the physical nature of lignin’s interactions with wall polysaccharides is not well understood. Here we show that lignin self-aggregates to form highly hydrophobic and dynamically unique nanodomains, with extensive surface contacts to xylan. Solid-state NMR spectroscopy of intact maize stems, supported by dynamic nuclear polarization, reveals that lignin has abundant electrostatic interactions with the polar motifs of xylan. Lignin preferentially binds xylans with 3-fold or distorted 2-fold helical screw conformations, indicative of xylans not closely associated with cellulose. These findings advance our knowledge of the molecular-level organization of lignocellulosic biomass, providing the structural foundation for optimization of post-harvest processing for biofuels and biomaterials.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- General Chemistry
- General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
- General Physics and Astronomy