Chemical Factors that Control Lignin Polymerization

Amandeep K. Sangha, Brian H. Davison, Robert F. Standaert, Mark F. Davis, Jeremy C. Smith, Jerry M. Parks

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

46 Scopus Citations


Lignin is a complex, branched polymer that reinforces plant tissue. Understanding the factors that govern lignin structure is of central importance to the development of technologies for converting lignocellulosic biomass into fuels because lignin imparts resistance to chemical, enzymatic, and mechanical deconstruction. Lignin is formed by enzymatic oxidation of phenolic monomers (monolignols) of three main types, guaiacyl (G), syringyl (S), and p-hydroxyphenyl (H) subunits. It is known that increasing the relative abundance of H subunits results in lower molecular weight lignin polymers and hence more easily deconstructed biomass, but it is not known why. Here, we report an analysis of frontier molecular orbitals in mono-, di-, and trilignols, calculated using density functional theory, which points to a requirement of strong p-electron density on the reacting phenolic oxygen atom of the neutral precursor for enzymatic oxidation to occur. This model is consistent with a proton-coupled electron transfer (PCET) mechanism and for the first time explains why H subunits in certain linkages (β-β or β-5) react poorly and tend to "cap" the polymer. In general, β-5 linkages with either a G or H terminus are predicted to inhibit elongation. More broadly, the model correctly accounts for the reactivity of the phenolic groups in a diverse set of dilignols comprising H and G subunits. Thus, we provide a coherent framework for understanding the propensity toward growth or termination of different terminal subunits in lignin.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)164-170
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Physical Chemistry B
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2014

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/JA-5100-61470


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