Plant cell wall breakdown by anaerobic microorganisms from the mammalian digestive tract

Harry J. Flint, Edward A. Bayer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

160 Citations (Scopus)


Degradation of lignocellulosic plant material in the mammalian digestive tract is accomplished by communities of anaerobic microorganisms that exist in symbiotic association with the host. Catalytic domains and substrate-binding modules concerned with plant polysaccharide degradation are found in a variety of anaerobic bacteria, fungi, and protozoa from the mammalian gut. The organization of plant cell wall-degrading enzymes, however, varies widely. The cellulolytic gram-positive bacterium Ruminococcus flavefaciens produces an elaborate cellulosomal enzyme complex that is anchored to the bacterial cell wall; assembly of the complex involves at least five different dockerin:cohesin specificities, and the R. flavefaciens genome encodes at least 180 dockerin-containing proteins that encompass a wide array of catalytic and binding activities. On the other hand, in the cellulolytic protozoan, Polyplastron multivesiculatum, individual plant cell wall-degrading enzymes appear to be secreted into food vacuoles, while the gram-negative bacterium Prevotella bryantii appears to possess a sequestration-type system for the utilization of soluble xylans. The system that is employed for polysaccharide utilization must play a major role in defining the ecological niche that each organism occupies within a complex gut community. 16S rRNA analyses are also revealing uncultured bacterial species closely adherent to fibrous substrates in the rumen and in the large intestine of animals and humans. The true complexity, both at a single organism and community level, of the microbial enzyme systems that allow animals to digest plant material is beginning to become apparent.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)280-288
Number of pages9
JournalAnnals of the New York Academy of Sciences
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2008


  • lignocellulose
  • rumen
  • cellulosome
  • Ruminococcus
  • Prevotella
  • large intestine
  • microbial ecology
  • protozoan polyplastron-multivesiculatum
  • bacterium ruminococcus-flavefaciens
  • prevotella-ruminicola B(1)4
  • 16s ribosomal-RNA
  • human gut
  • bacteroides-thetaiotaomicron
  • microbial diversity
  • gastrointestinal-tract
  • molecular analysis
  • sequence-analysis


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