Meera Atreya

Ph.D. Chemistry (Chemical Biology), 2015
University of California, Berkeley

A.B. Chemical and Physical Biology, 2009
Harvard University

Engineering Cellulase Enzymes for Bioenergy

Sustainable energy sources, such as biofuels, offer increasingly important alternatives to fossil fuels that contribute less to global climate change. The energy contained within cellulosic biofuels derives from sunlight energy stored in the form of carbon-carbon bonds comprising sugars such as glucose. Second-generation biofuels are produced from lignocellulosic biomass feedstocks, including agricultural waste products and non-food crops like Miscanthus, that contain lignin and the polysaccharides hemicellulose and cellulose. Cellulose is the most abundant biological material on Earth; it is a polymer of glucose and a structural component of plant cell walls. Accessing the sugar is challenging, as the crystalline structure of cellulose resists degradation; biochemical and thermochemical means can be used to depolymerize cellulose.

Cellulase enzymes catalyze the biochemical depolymerization of cellulose into glucose. Glucose can be used as a carbon source for growth of a biofuel-producing microorganism. When it converts glucose to a hydrocarbon fuel, this microbe completes the biofuels process of transforming sunlight energy into accessible, chemical energy capable of replacing non-renewable transportation fuels.

Due to strong intermolecular interactions between polymer chains, cellulose is significantly more challenging to depolymerize than starch, a more accessible polymer of glucose utilized in first-generation biofuels processes (often derived from corn). While most mammals cannot digest cellulose (dietary fiber), certain fungi and bacteria produce cellulase enzymes capable of hydrolyzing it. These organisms secrete a wide variety of glycoside hydrolase and other classes of enzymes that work in concert.

Because cellulase enzymes are slow-acting and expensive to produce, my aim has been to improve the properties of these enzymes as a means to make a cellulosic biofuels process possible that is more efficient and, consequently, more economical than current methods. Protein engineering targets to improve cellulases include reducing enzyme inhibition, improving inter-enzyme synergy, and increasing enzyme thermotolerance. Ameliorating enzyme inhibition could improve catalytic activity and thus the speed of conversion from biomass to fermentable sugars. Improved enzyme synergy could reduce the enzyme loading required to achieve equivalent biomass conversion. Finally, thermostable enzymes could enable more biomass to be processed at a time, due to high temperatures decreasing the viscosity of biomass slurries. A high-temperature enzyme saccharification reaction could also decrease the risk of contamination in the resulting concentrated sugar solution. Throughout my PhD, I have explored research projects broadly across all of these topics, with the most success in addressing the issue of enzyme inhibition.

Cellulase enzyme Cel7A is the most abundant cellulase employed by natural systems for cellulose hydrolysis. Cellobiohydrolase enzymes like Cel7A break down cellulose into cellobiose (two glucose molecules). Unfortunately, upon cleavage, this product molecule interferes with continued hydrolysis activity of Cel7A; the strong binding of cellobiose in the active site can obstruct the enzyme from processing down the cellulase chain. This phenomenon, known as product inhibition, is a bottleneck to efficient biomass breakdown.

Using insights from computational protein modeling studies, I experimentally generated and tested mutant Cel7A enzymes for improved tolerance to cellobiose. Indeed, this strategy yielded Cel7A enzymes exhibiting reduced product inhibition, including some mutants completely impervious to cellobiose. The improvements in tolerance to cellobiose, however, resulted in an overall reduction of enzyme activity for the mutants tested. Nevertheless, my findings substantiated computational reports with experimental evidence and pinpointed an amino acid residue in the Cel7A product binding site that is of interest for follow-up mutational studies.     

My goal was to improve the effective catalytic activity of cellulase enzymes in industrially-relevant conditions (such as in the presence of high concentrations of cellobiose or at elevated temperatures). The insights gained from my work on enzyme inhibition may inform future efforts to address this important issue. More efficient enzymes should reduce the amount of these proteins needed to break down cellulose to glucose. This, in turn, should decrease the price of the resulting biofuel making it more cost-competitive with fossil fuels and thus encouraging adoption of renewable transportation fuels that reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.