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High-Throughput Screening Techniques for Biomass Conversion

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High-throughput (HTP) screening of biomass or biomass-degrading enzymes, regardless of the desired outcome, is fraught with obstacles and challenges not typically faced in more traditional biotechnology. The enzyme systems are complex and synergistic and the substrate is highly heterogeneous, insoluble, and difficult to dispense. Digestions are often carried out for days at temperatures of 50°C or higher, leading to significant challenges regarding evaporation control in small well volumes. Furthermore, it is often desirable to condition or “pretreat” the biomass at extreme temperatures and/or pH to enhance enzyme digestibility. Once the substrate has been saccharified, evaluation of the extent and efficiency of conversion is made more difficult by time-consuming and tedious techniques used to measure the sugar products. Over the past decade or so, biomass researchers have creatively addressed these challenges by developing techniques to reduce biomass heterogeneity, uniformly distribute biomass samples at the small scale, pretreat the biomass at the small scale, quantitatively load these samples with enzymes, control evaporation of small reaction volumes for multiday incubations, and rapidly quantify the products. Other aspects of these measurements remain problematic and are being addressed. This review will address some of these challenges in detail, but more importantly, we will endeavor to educate the reader about the trials, tribulations, and pitfalls of carrying out HTP screening in biomass conversion research.

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BioEnergy Science Center


National Renewable Energy Laboratory


high throughput


United States Department of Energy


mass spectrometry


gas chromatography


high-performance liquid chromatography


ultra-performance liquid chromatography


Society for Biomolecular Screening


ammonium fiber expansion


dinitrosalicylic Acid


bicinchoninic Acid




refractive index


pulsed amperometric detection


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The authors wish to thank Charles Wyman and his coworkers at the University of California-Riverside for the description and images of their high-throughput pretreatment reactor system. This work was supported by the DOE Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research through the BioEnergy Science Center (BESC), a DOE Bioenergy Research Center.

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Correspondence to Stephen R. Decker.

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Decker, S.R., Brunecky, R., Tucker, M.P. et al. High-Throughput Screening Techniques for Biomass Conversion. Bioenerg. Res. 2, 179–192 (2009).

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