Room temperature ionic liquids (RTILs) are emerging as attractive and green solvents for lignocellulosic biomass pretreatment. The unique solvating properties of RTILs foster the disruption of the 3D network structure of lignin, cellulose, and hemicellulose, which allows high yields of fermentable sugars to be produced in subsequent enzymatic hydrolysis. In the current review, we summarize the physicochemical properties of RTILs that make them effective solvents for lignocellulose pretreatment including mechanisms of interaction between lignocellulosic biomass subcomponents and RTILs. We also highlight several recent strategies that exploit RTILs and generate high yields of fermentable sugars suitable for downstream biofuel production, and address new opportunities for use of lignocellulosic components, including lignin. Finally, we address some of the challenges that remain before large-scale use of RTILs may be achieved. Biotechnol. Bioeng. 2011;108:1229–1245. © 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.