Computational and experimental investigation of the enzymatic hydrolysis of cellulose
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The enzymatic hydrolysis of cellulose to glucose by cellulases is one of the major steps in the conversion of lignocellulosic biomass to biofuel. This hydrolysis by cellulases, a heterogeneous reaction, currently suffers from some major limitations, most importantly a dramatic rate slowdown at high degrees of conversion in the case of crystalline cellulose. Various rate-limiting factors were investigated employing experimental as well as computational studies. Cellulose accessibility and the hydrolysable fraction of accessible substrate (a previously undefined and unreported quantity) were shown to decrease steadily with conversion, while cellulose reactivity, defined in terms of hydrolytic activity per amount of actively adsorbed cellulase, remained constant. Faster restart rates were observed on partially converted cellulose as compared to uninterrupted hydrolysis rates, supporting the presence of an enzyme clogging phenomenon. Cellulose crystallinity is a major substrate property affecting the rates, but its quantification has suffered from lack of consistency and accuracy. Using multivariate statistical analysis of X-ray data from cellulose, a new method to determine the degree of crystallinity was developed. Cel7A CBD is a promising target for protein engineering as cellulose pretreated with Cel7A CBDs exhibits enhanced hydrolysis rates resulting from a reduction in crystallinity. However, for Cel7A CBD, a high throughput assay is unlikely to be developed. In the absence of a high throughput assay (required for directed evolution) and extensive knowledge of the role of specific protein residues (required for rational protein design), the mutations need to be picked wisely, to avoid the generation of inactive variants. To tackle this issue, a method utilizing the underlying patterns in the sequences of a protein family has been developed.