Visualizing Lignin Coalescence and Migration Through Maize Cell Walls Following Thermochemical Pretreatment

Bryon S. Donohoe, Stephen R. Decker, Melvin P. Tucker, Michael E. Himmel, Todd B. Vinzant

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

608 Scopus Citations


Plant cell walls are composed primarily of cellulose, hemicelluloses, lignins, and pectins. Of these components, lignins exhibit unique chemistry and physiological functions. Although lignins can be used as a product feedstock or as a fuel, lignins are also generally seen as a barrier to efficient enzymatic breakdown of biomass to sugars. Indeed, many pretreatment strategies focus on removing a significant fraction of lignin from biomass to better enable saccharification. In order to better understand the fate of biomass lignins that remain with the solids following dilute acid pretreatment, we undertook a structural investigation to track lignins on and in biomass cell walls. SEM and TEM imaging revealed a range of droplet morphologies that appear on and within cell walls of pretreated biomass; as well as the specific ultrastructural regions that accumulate the droplets. These droplets were shown to contain lignin by FTIR, NMR, antibody labeling, and cytochemical staining. We provide evidence supporting the idea that thermochemical pretreatments reaching temperatures above the range for lignin phase transition cause lignins to coalesce into larger molten bodies that migrate within and out of the cell wall, and can redeposit on the surface of plant cell walls. This decompartmentalization and relocalization of lignins is likely to be at least as important as lignin removal in the quest to improve the digestibility of biomass for sugars and fuels production.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)913-925
Number of pages13
JournalBiotechnology and Bioengineering
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2008

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/JA-270-43017


  • Biomass
  • Electron microscopy
  • Lignin
  • Pretreatment
  • Tomography


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