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Enzymatic degradation of plant biomass and synthetic polymers


Plant biomass is an abundant renewable resource on Earth. Microorganisms harvest energy from plant material by means of complex enzymatic systems that efficiently degrade natural polymers. Intriguingly, microorganisms have evolved to exploit these ancient mechanisms to also decompose synthetic plastic polymers. In this Review, we summarize the mechanisms by which they decompose non-starch plant biomass and the six major types of synthetic plastics. We focus on the structural features of the enzymes that contribute to substrate recognition and then describe the catalytic mechanisms of polymer metabolism. An understanding of these natural biocatalysts is valuable if we are to exploit their potential for the degradation of synthetic polymers.

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Fig. 1: Cutin and rubber structures and their enzymatic degradation.
Fig. 2: The structure of lignin and its enzymatic degradation.
Fig. 3: The structures of polysaccharide-based plant polymers.
Fig. 4: Glycoside hydrolases and polysaccharide lyases cleave sugars with acid–base pairs.
Fig. 5: Lytic polysaccharide monooxygenases cleave sugars oxidatively.
Fig. 6: Backbone structures of the most widely produced synthetic polymers.
Fig. 7: Hydrolytic reaction and structural feature of IsPETase.


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This work has been supported by the National Key Research and Development Program of China (2019YFA0706900) and Hubei Natural Science Foundation (grant 2017CFB158). We thank T.-P. Ko and X. Yu for helpful discussions.

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C.-C.C. and L.D. contributed to the writing and editing of this manuscript. L.M. and R.-T.G. contributed to the discussion of content and writing and reviewing/editing the manuscript before submission.

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Correspondence to Lixin Ma or Rey-Ting Guo.

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Chen, CC., Dai, L., Ma, L. et al. Enzymatic degradation of plant biomass and synthetic polymers. Nat Rev Chem 4, 114–126 (2020).

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