Multiple Levers for Overcoming the Recalcitrance of Lignocellulosic Biomass

Erica Gjersing, Mark Davis, Michael Himmel, Evert Holwerda, Robert Worthen, Ninad Kothari, Ronald Lasky, Brian Davison, Chunxiang Fu, Zeng-Yu Wang, Richard Dixon, Ajaya Biswal, Debra Mohnen, Richard Nelson, Holly Baxter, Mitra Mazarei, Wellington Muchero, Gerald Tuskan, Charles Cai, Charles WymanPaul Gilna, Lee Lynd

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

51 Scopus Citations


Background: The recalcitrance of cellulosic biomass is widely recognized as a key barrier to cost-effective biological processing to fuels and chemicals, but the relative impacts of physical, chemical and genetic interventions to improve biomass processing singly and in combination have yet to be evaluated systematically. Solubilization of plant cell walls can be enhanced by non-biological augmentation including physical cotreatment and thermochemical pretreatment, the choice of biocatalyst, the choice of plant feedstock, genetic engineering of plants, and choosing feedstocks that are less recalcitrant natural variants. A two-tiered combinatoric investigation of lignocellulosic biomass deconstruction was undertaken with three biocatalysts (Clostridium thermocellum, Caldicellulosiruptor bescii, Novozymes Cellic® Ctec2 and Htec2), three transgenic switchgrass plant lines (COMT, MYB4, GAUT4) and their respective nontransgenic controls, two Populus natural variants, and augmentation of biological attack using either mechanical cotreatment or cosolvent-enhanced lignocellulosic fractionation (CELF) pretreatment. Results: In the absence of augmentation and under the conditions tested, increased total carbohydrate solubilization (TCS) was observed for 8 of the 9 combinations of switchgrass modifications and biocatalysts tested, and statistically significant for five of the combinations. Our results indicate that recalcitrance is not a trait determined by the feedstock only, but instead is coequally determined by the choice of biocatalyst. TCS with C. thermocellum was significantly higher than with the other two biocatalysts. Both CELF pretreatment and cotreatment via continuous ball milling enabled TCS in excess of 90%. Conclusion: Based on our results as well as literature studies, it appears that some form of non-biological augmentation will likely be necessary for the foreseeable future to achieve high TCS for most cellulosic feedstocks. However, our results show that this need not necessarily involve thermochemical processing, and need not necessarily occur prior to biological conversion. Under the conditions tested, the relative magnitude of TCS increase was augmentation > biocatalyst choice > plant choice > plant modification > plant natural variants. In the presence of augmentation, plant modification, plant natural variation, and plant choice exhibited a small, statistically non-significant impact on TCS.

Original languageAmerican English
Article number15
Number of pages12
JournalBiotechnology for Biofuels
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2019

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 The Author(s).

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/JA-2700-73226


  • Biomass deconstruction
  • Caldicellulosiruptor bescii
  • CELF
  • Clostridium thermocellum
  • Cotreatment
  • Fungal cellulase
  • Populus natural variants
  • Recalcitrance
  • Transgenic switchgrass


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