Currently the major barrier in biomass utilization is the lack of an effective pretreatment of plant cell wall so that the carbohydrates can subsequently be hydrolyzed into sugars for fermentation into fuel or chemical molecules. Termites are highly effective in degrading lignocellulosics and thus can be used as model biological systems for studying plant cell wall degradation.
We discovered a combination of specific structural and compositional modification of the lignin framework and partial degradation of carbohydrates that occurs in softwood with physical chewing by the termite, Coptotermes formosanus, which are critical for efficient cell wall digestion. Comparative studies on the termite-chewed and native (control) softwood tissues at the same size were conducted with the aid of advanced analytical techniques such as pyrolysis gas chromatography mass spectrometry, attenuated total reflectance Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy and thermogravimetry. The results strongly suggest a significant increase in the softwood cellulose enzymatic digestibility after termite chewing, accompanied with utilization of holocellulosic counterparts and an increase in the hydrolysable capacity of lignin collectively. In other words, the termite mechanical chewing process combines with specific biological pretreatment on the lignin counterpart in the plant cell wall, resulting in increased enzymatic cellulose digestibility in vitro. The specific lignin unlocking mechanism at this chewing stage comprises mainly of the cleavage of specific bonds from the lignin network and the modification and redistribution of functional groups in the resulting chewed plant tissue, which better expose the carbohydrate within the plant cell wall. Moreover, cleavage of the bond between the holocellulosic network and lignin molecule during the chewing process results in much better exposure of the biomass carbohydrate.
Collectively, these data indicate the participation of lignin-related enzyme(s) or polypeptide(s) and/or esterase(s), along with involvement of cellulases and hemicellulases in the chewing process of C. formosanus, resulting in an efficient pretreatment of biomass through a combination of mechanical and enzymatic processes. This pretreatment could be mimicked for industrial biomass conversion.