The extent of fermentative transformation of phenolic compounds in the bioanode controls exoelectrogenic activity in a microbial electrolysis cell
by Abhijeet P Borole, M A Collins, Abhijeet P Borole, S G Paviostathis
Phenolic compounds in hydrolysate/pyrolysate and wastewater streams produced during the pretreatment of lignocellulosic biomass for biofuel production present a significant challenge in downstream processes. Bioelectrochemical systems are increasingly recognized as an alternative technology to handle biomass-derived streams and to promote water reuse in biofuel production. Thus, a thorough understanding of the fate of phenolic compounds in bioanodes is urgently needed. The present study investigated the biotransformation of three structurally similar phenolic compounds (syringic acid, SA; vanillic acid, VA; 4-hydroxybenzoic acid, HBA), and their individual contribution to exoelectrogenesis in a microbial electrolysis cell (MEC) bioanode. Fermentation of SA resulted in the highest exoelectrogenic activity among the three compounds tested, with 50% of the electron equivalents converted to current, compared to 12 and 9% for VA and HBA, respectively. The biotransformation of SA, VA and HBA was initiated by demethylation and decarboxylation reactions common to all three compounds, resulting in their corresponding hydroxylated analogs. SA was transformed to pyrogallol (1,2,3-trihydroxybenzene), whose aromatic ring was then cleaved via a phloroglucinol pathway, resulting in acetate production, which was then used in exoelectrogenesis. In contrast, more than 80% of VA and HBA was converted to catechol (1,2-dihydroxybenzene) and phenol (hydroxybenzene) as their respective dead-end products. The persistence of catechol and phenol is explained by the fact that the phloroglucinol pathway does not apply to di- or mono-hydroxylated benzenes. Previously reported, alternative ring-cleaving pathways were either absent in the bioanode microbial community or unfavorable due to high energy-demand reactions. With the exception of acetate oxidation, all biotransformation steps in the bioanode occurred via fermentation, independently of exoelectrogenesis. Therefore, the observed exoelectrogenic activity in batch runs conducted with SA, VA and HBA was controlled by the extent of fermentative transformation of the three phenolic compounds in the bioanode, which is related to the number and position of the methoxy and hydroxyl substituents.