Opportunities and Challenges in Biological Lignin Valorization

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Lignin is a primary component of lignocellulosic biomass that is an underutilized feedstock in the growing biofuels industry. Despite the fact that lignin depolymerization has long been studied, the intrinsic heterogeneity of lignin typically leads to heterogeneous streams of aromatic compounds, which in turn present significant technical challenges when attempting to produce lignin-derived chemicals where purity is often a concern. In Nature, microorganisms often encounter this same problem during biomass turnover wherein powerful oxidative enzymes produce heterogeneous slates of aromatics compounds. Some microbes have evolved metabolic pathways to convert these aromatic species via 'upper pathways' into central intermediates, which can then be funneled through 'lower pathways' into central carbon metabolism in a process we dubbed 'biological funneling'. This funneling approach offers a direct, biological solution to overcome heterogeneity problems in lignin valorization for the modern biorefinery. Coupled to targeted separations and downstream chemical catalysis, this concept offers the ability to produce a wide range of molecules from lignin. This perspective describes research opportunities and challenges ahead for this new field of research, which holds significant promise towards a biorefinery concept wherein polysaccharides and lignin are treated as equally valuable feedstocks. In particular, we discuss tailoring the lignin substrate for microbial utilization, host selection for biological funneling, ligninolytic enzyme-microbe synergy, metabolic engineering, expanding substrate specificity for biological funneling, and process integration, each of which presents key challenges. Ultimately, for biological solutions to lignin valorization to be viable, multiple questions in each of these areas will need to be addressed, making biological lignin valorization a multidisciplinary, co-design problem.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)40-53
Number of pages14
JournalCurrent Opinion in Biotechnology
StatePublished - 1 Dec 2016

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 Elsevier Ltd.

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/JA-5100-66139


  • biological funneling
  • integrated lignocellulosic biorefinery
  • lignin valorization


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