Understanding the process of biomass degradation by cellulolytic enzymes is of urgent importance for biofuel and chemical production. Optimizing pretreatment conditions and improving enzyme formulations both require assays to quantify saccharification products on solid substrates. Typically, such assays are performed using freely diffusing fluorophores or dyes that measure reducing polysaccharide chain ends. These methods have thus far not allowed spatial localization of hydrolysis activity to specific substrate locations with identifiable morphological features. Here we describe a hydrogel reagent signaling (HyReS) system that amplifies saccharification products and initiates crosslinking of a hydrogel that localizes to locations of cellulose hydrolysis, allowing for imaging of the degradation process in real time. Optical detection of the gel in a rapid parallel format on synthetic and natural pretreated solid substrates was used to quantify activity of T. emersonii and T. reesei enzyme cocktails. When combined with total internal reflection fluorescence microscopy and AFM imaging, the reagent system provided a means to visualize enzyme activity in real-time with high spatial resolution (<2 μm). These results demonstrate the versatility of the HyReS system in detecting cellulolytic enzyme activity and suggest new opportunities in real-time chemical imaging of biomass depolymerization.
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