Fungal Cellulases and Complexed Cellulosomal Enzymes Exhibit Synergistic Mechanisms in Cellulose Deconstruction

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Nature has evolved multiple enzymatic strategies for the degradation of plant cell wall polysaccharides, which are central to carbon flux in the biosphere and an integral part of renewable biofuels production. Many biomass-degrading organisms secrete synergistic cocktails of individual enzymes with one or several catalytic domains per enzyme, whereas a few bacteria synthesize large multi-enzyme complexes, termed cellulosomes, which contain multiple catalytic units per complex. Both enzyme systems employ similar catalytic chemistries; however, the physical mechanisms by which these enzyme systems degrade polysaccharides are still unclear. Here we examine a prominent example of each type, namely a free-enzyme cocktail expressed by the fungus Hypocrea jecorina and a cellulosome preparation secreted from the anaerobic bacterium Clostridium thermocellum. We observe striking differences in cellulose saccharification exhibited by these systems at the same protein loading. Free enzymes are more active on pretreated biomass and in contrast cellulosomes are much more active on purified cellulose. When combined, these systems display dramatic synergistic enzyme activity on cellulose. To gain further insights, we imaged free enzyme- and cellulosome-digested cellulose and biomass by transmission electron microscopy, which revealed evidence for different mechanisms of cellulose deconstruction by free enzymes and cellulosomes. Specifically, the free enzymes employ an ablative, fibril-sharpening mechanism, whereas cellulosomes physically separate individual cellulose microfibrils from larger particles resulting in enhanced access to cellulose surfaces. Interestingly, when the two enzyme systems are combined, we observe changes to the substrate that suggests mechanisms of synergistic deconstruction. Insight into the different mechanisms underlying these two polysaccharide deconstruction paradigms will eventually enable new strategies for enzyme engineering to overcome biomass recalcitrance.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)1858-1867
Number of pages10
JournalEnergy and Environmental Science
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2013

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/JA-2700-58700


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