PLoS One 7(5) , e36740 ( 2012)
This study describes the composition and metabolic potential of a lignocellulosic biomass degrading community that decays poplar wood chips under anaerobic conditions. We examined the community that developed on poplar biomass in a non-aerated bioreactor over the course of a year, with no microbial inoculation other than the naturally occurring organisms on the woody material. The composition of this community contrasts in important ways with biomass-degrading communities associated with higher organisms, which have evolved over millions of years into a symbiotic relationship. Both mammalian and insect hosts provide partial size reduction, chemical treatments (low or high pH environments), and complex enzymatic ‘secretomes’ that improve microbial access to cell wall polymers. We hypothesized that in order to efficiently degrade coarse untreated biomass, a spontaneously assembled free-living community must both employ alternative strategies, such as enzymatic lignin depolymerization, for accessing hemicellulose and cellulose and have a much broader metabolic potential than host-associated communities. This would suggest that such a community would make a valuable resource for finding new catalytic functions involved in biomass decomposition and gaining new insight into the poorly understood process of anaerobic lignin depolymerization. Therefore, in addition to determining the major players in this community, our work specifically aimed at identifying functions potentially involved in the depolymerization of cellulose, hemicelluloses, and lignin, and to assign specific roles to the prevalent community members in the collaborative process of biomass decomposition. A bacterium similar to Magnetospirillum was identified among the dominant community members, which could play a key role in the anaerobic breakdown of aromatic compounds. We suggest that these compounds are released from the lignin fraction in poplar hardwood during the decay process, which would point to lignin-modification or depolymerization under anaerobic conditions.