Outlook for Cellulase Improvement: Screening and Selection Strategies

Y.-H. Zhang, Michael Himmel, Jonathan Mielenz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Cellulose is the most abundant renewable natural biological resource, and the production of biobased products and bioenergy from less costly renewable lignocellulosic materials is important for the sustainable development of human beings. A reduction in cellulase production cost, an improvement in cellulase performance, and an increase in sugar yields are all vital to reduce the processing costs of biorefineries. Improvements in specific cellulase activities for non-complexed cellulase mixtures can be implemented through cellulase engineering based on rational design or directed evolution for each cellulase component enzyme, as well as on the reconstitution of cellulase components. Here, we review quantitative cellulase activity assays using soluble and insoluble substrates, and focus on their advantages and limitations. Because there are no clear relationships between cellulase activities on soluble substrates and those on insoluble substrates, soluble substrates should not be used to screen or select improved cellulases for processing relevant solid substrates, such as plant cell walls. Cellulase improvement strategies based on directed evolution using screening on soluble substrates have been only moderately successful, and have primarily targeted improvement in thermal tolerance. Heterogeneity of insoluble cellulose, unclear dynamic interactions between insoluble substrate and cellulase components, and the complex competitive and/or synergic relationship among cellulase components limit rational design and/or strategies, depending on activity screening approaches. Herein, we hypothesize that continuous culture using insoluble cellulosic substrates could be a powerful selection tool for enriching beneficial cellulase mutants from the large library displayed on the cell surface.
Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)452-481
Number of pages30
JournalBiotechnology Advances
StatePublished - 2006

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/JA-270-40736


  • cellulase activity assay
  • cellulose
  • cellulosome
  • continuous culture
  • enzymatic cellulose hydrolysis
  • high throughput screening
  • selection
  • sugar assay


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