Systematic parameterization of lignin for the CHARMM force field
Lignin is an abundant aromatic biopolymer within plant cell walls formed through radical coupling chemistry, whose composition and topology can vary greatly depending on the biomass source. Computational modeling provides a complementary approach to traditional experimental techniques to probe lignin interactions, lignin structure, and lignin material properties. However, current modeling approaches are limited based on the subset of lignin chemistries covered by existing lignin force fields. To fill the gap, we developed a comprehensive lignin force field that accounts for more lignin–lignin and lignin–carbohydrate interlinkages than existing lignin force fields, and also greatly expands the lignin monomer chemistries that can be modeled beyond simple alcohols and into the rich mixture of natural lignin varieties. The development of this force field utilizes recent developments in parameterization methodology, and synthesizes them into a workflow that combines target data from multiple molecules simultaneously into a single consistent and comprehensive parameter set. The parameter set represents a significant improvement to alternatives for atomic modeling of diverse lignin topologies, more accurately reproducing experimental observables while also significantly reducing the error relative to quantum calculations. The improved energetics, as well as the rigid adherence to CHARMM parameterization philosophy, enables simulation of lignin within its biological context with greater accuracy than was previously possible. The lignin force field presented here is therefore a crucial first step towards modeling lignin structure across a broad range of environments, including within plant cell walls where lignin is complexed with carbohydrates and deconstructed by bacterial or fungal enzymes, or as it exists within industrial solvent mixtures. Future simulations enabled by this updated lignin force field will thus lead to better chemical and structural understanding of lignin, providing new insight into its role in biomass recalcitrance or probing the potential for lignin to be used within industrial processes.