OpenPlant researchers publish a strategy to improve conversion of plant biomass to sugars for bioenergy

A new publication from the lab of OpenPlant PI Prof. Paul Dupree, University of Cambridge in Biotechnology for Biofuels describes work to improve processing of softwood to biofuels using a synthetic biology strategy to express and assay conifer cell wall synthesis enzymes.


Lyczakowski, J.J., Wicher, K.B., Terrett, O.M., Faria-Blanc, N., Yu, X., Brown, D., Krogh, K.B.R.M., Dupree, P., and Busse-Wicher, M. (2017). Removal of glucuronic acid from xylan is a strategy to improve the conversion of plant biomass to sugars for bioenergy. Biotechnology for Biofuels 10: 224


Background: Plant lignocellulosic biomass can be a source of fermentable sugars for the production of second generation biofuels and biochemicals. The recalcitrance of this plant material is one of the major obstacles in its conversion into sugars. Biomass is primarily composed of secondary cell walls, which is made of cellulose, hemicelluloses and lignin. Xylan, a hemicellulose, binds to the cellulose microfibril and is hypothesised to form an interface between lignin and cellulose. Both softwood and hardwood xylan carry glucuronic acid side branches. As xylan branching may be important for biomass recalcitrance and softwood is an abundant, non-food competing, source of biomass it is important to investigate how conifer xylan is synthesised.

Results: Here, we show using Arabidopsis gux mutant biomass that removal of glucuronosyl substitutions of xylan can allow 30% more glucose and over 700% more xylose to be released during saccharification. Ethanol yields obtained through enzymatic saccharification and fermentation of gux biomass were double those obtained for non-mutant material. Our analysis of additional xylan branching mutants demonstrates that absence of GlcA is unique in conferring the reduced recalcitrance phenotype. As in hardwoods, conifer xylan is branched with GlcA. We use transcriptomic analysis to identify conifer enzymes that might be responsible for addition of GlcA branches onto xylan in industrially important softwood. Using a combination of in vitro and in vivo activity assays, we demonstrate that a white spruce (Picea glauca) gene, PgGUX, encodes an active glucuronosyl transferase. Glucuronic acid introduced by PgGUX reduces the sugar release of Arabidopsis gux mutant biomass to wild-type levels indicating that it can fulfil the same biological function as native glucuronosylation.

Conclusion: Removal of glucuronic acid from xylan results in the largest increase in release of fermentable sugars from Arabidopsis plants that grow to the wild-type size. Additionally, plant material used in this work did not undergo any chemical pretreatment, and thus increased monosaccharide release from gux biomass can be achieved without the use of environmentally hazardous chemical pretreatment procedures. Therefore, the identification of a gymnosperm enzyme, likely to be responsible for softwood xylan glucuronosylation, provides a mutagenesis target for genetically improved forestry trees.