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Lignin is a component of plant biomass that presents a significant obstacle to biofuel production. It is composed of a highly stable phenylpropanoid matrix that upon degradation, releases toxic metabolites. Termites have specialized digestive systems that overcome the lignin barrier in wood lignocellulose to efficiently release fermentable simple sugars; however, how termites specifically degrade lignin and tolerate its toxic byproducts remains unknown. Here, using the termite Reticulitermes flavipes and its symbiotic (protozoan) gut fauna as a model system, we used high throughput Roche 454-titanium pyrosequencing and proteomics approaches to (i) experimentally compare the effects of diets containing varying degrees of lignin complexity on host-symbiont digestome composition, (ii) deeply sample host and symbiont lignocellulase diversity, and (iii) identify promising lignocellulase candidates for functional characterization. In addition to revealing over 9500 differentially expressed transcripts related to a wide range of physiological processes, our findings reveal two detoxification enzyme families not generally considered in connection with lignocellulose digestion: aldo-keto reductases and catalases. Recombinant versions of two host enzymes from these enzyme families, which apparently play no roles in cellulose or hemicellulose digestion, significantly enhance lignocellulose saccharification by cocktails of host and symbiont cellulases. These hypothesis-driven results provide important new insights into (i) dietary lignin as a xenobiotic challenge, (ii) the complex mechanisms used by termites to cope with their lignin-rich diets, and (iii) novel lignin-targeted enzymatic approaches to enhance biofuel and biomaterial production. Copyright © 2012 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.


Amit Sethi, Jeffrey M Slack, Elena S Kovaleva, George W Buchman, Michael E Scharf. Lignin-associated metagene expression in a lignocellulose-digesting termite. Insect biochemistry and molecular biology. 2013 Jan;43(1):91-101

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PMID: 23108206

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