Photo of Michael E. Himmel

Michael Himmel

Senior Research Fellow I-Molecular Biology


A principal group manager in the Biosciences Center, Michael Himmel has more than 35 years of experience in conducting, supervising, and planning research in: protein biochemistry, recombinant technology, enzyme engineering, new micro-organism discovery, and physicochemistry of macromolecules. He leads a team of over 35 staff scientists in NREL's Biomolecular Sciences group.

Michael is a biochemist whose work on cellulase greatly simplified and lowered the cost of converting biomass to fuel.

Research Interests

Michael has supervised research that targets the application of site-directed mutagenesis and rational protein design to the stabilization and improvement of important industrial enzymes, especially glycosyl hydrolases. He has functioned as principal investigator for the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Office of the Biomass Program since 1992, and his responsibilities have included: research to improve cellulase performance; reducing biomass pretreatment costs; and improving yields of fermentable sugars. Michael also developed new facilities at NREL for biomass conversion research, including a Cellulase Biochemistry Laboratory, a Biomass Surface Characterization Laboratory, a Protein Crystallography Laboratory, and a new Computational Science Team.

During the past four decades, Michael contributed ~500 peer-reviewed journal articles to the literature. In addition, he has edited 10 books and been awarded 35 patents. He has organized or co-organized 15 international conferences on aspects of biotechnology and biomass conversion. In 2008, Michael edited a new book for Blackwell Publishers entitled Biomass Recalcitrance, which is listed as a top-selling book in science and has now been translated into Chinese. He served as chair for the new Gordon Research Conference on cellulases and cellulosomes in 2003 and continues to support the conference. Michael currently works closely with the biomass conversion industry, as demonstrated by the numerous cooperative research and development agreements currently underway in his NREL laboratory. His new research interests include biohybrids, biomicroelectronics, and functionalized biomaterials.


Ph.D., Biochemistry, Colorado State University

B.S., Chemistry, University of Northern Colorado

Professional Experience

Chaired or co-chaired 15 international meetings in the field of biochemistry and biotechnology, including the 2003 Gordon Research Conference on "Cellulases and Cellulosomes"

Serves on the editorial boards of the scientific journals Science, Bioenergy Research, and Cellulose

Fellow with the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute (RASEI): NREL and University of Colorado, Boulder Collaboratory

Reviewing Editor for Science

Co-Editor-in-Chief (Wyman, Himmel, & Somerville), Biotechnology for Biofuels

Featured Work

Fungal Cellulases, Chemical Reviews (2015)

Investigating The Role of Lignin on Biphasic Xylan Hydrolysis During Dilute Acid and Organosolv Pretreatment of Corn Stover, Green Chemistry (2015)

Carbohydrate Protein Interactions That Drive Processive Polysaccharide Translocation in Enzymes Revealed From a Computational Study of Cellobiohydrolase Processivity, JACS (2014)

Specificity of O-Glycosylation in Enhancing the Stability and Cellulose Binding Affinity of Family 1 Carbohydrate-Binding Modules, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2014)

The Structure of the Catalytic Domain of a Plant Cellulose Synthase and its Assembly into DimersPlant Cell (2014)

Towards a Molecular-Level Theory of Carbohydrate Processivity, Current Opinion in Biotechnology (2014)

Engineering Plant Cell Walls: Tuning Lignin Monomer Composition for Deconstructable Biofuels Feedstocks or Resilient BiomaterialsGreen Chemistry (2014)

Revealing Nature's Cellulase Diversity: The Hyperactive CelA from Caldicellulosiruptor bescii, Science (2013)

Fungal Cellulases and Complexed Cellulosomal Enzymes Exhibit Synergistic Mechanisms In Cellulose Deconstruction, Energy & Environmental Science (2013)

Glycoside Hydrolase Processivity is Directly Related to Oligosaccharide Binding Free EnergyJACS (2013)

Structural Characterization of a Unique Marine Animal Family 7 Cellobiohydrolase Suggests a Mechanism of Cellulase Salt ToleranceProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2013)

Glycosylated Linkers in Multi-Modular Lignocellulose-Degrading Enzymes Dynamically Bind to CelluloseProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2013)

How Does Plant Cell Wall Nanoscale Architecture Correlate With Enzymatic Digestibility, Science (2012)

Harnessing Glycosylation to Improve Cellulase ActivityCurrent Opinion in Biotechnology (2012)

Protein Allostery at the Solid-Liquid Interface: Endoglucanase Attachment to Cellulose Affects Glucan Clenching in the Binding Cleft, JACS (2011)

Perspectives and New Directions for the Production of Bioethanol Using Consolidated Bioprocessing of LignocelluloseCurrent Opinion in Biotechnology (2009)

Lignocellulose Conversion to Biofuels: Current Challenges, Global PerspectivesCurrent Opinion in Biotechnology (2009)

A Biophysical Perspective of the Cellulosome: New Solutions for Biomass ConversionCurrent Opinion in Biotechnology (2008)

Biomass Recalcitrance: Engineering Plants and Enzymes for Biofuels ProductionScience (2007)

The Potential of Cellulases and Cellulosomes for Cellulosic Waste ManagementCurrent Opinion in Biotechnology (2007)

Self-Assembly of Photoactive TiO2-Cyclodextrin Wires, JACS (2005)

Cellulase for Commodity Products from Cellulosic BiomassCurrent Opinion in Biotechnology (1999)

View all NREL Publications for Michael E. Himmel.

Awards and Honors

American Publishers Awards for Professional and Scholarly Excellence (The PROSE Awards) Nominated (2016)

Colorado State University, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Distinguished Alumnus (2014)

Battelle Memorial Institute Inventor of the Year (2013)

Battelle Memorial Institute Distinguished Inventor (2011)

C.D. Scott Award - Biotechnology for Fuels and Chemicals: Society for Industrial Microbiology (2010)

NREL/MRI Chairman's Award for Outstanding Performance (2007)

R&D 100 Award "Advanced Cellulase System for Biomass Conversion" (2004)

NREL/MRI H. Hubbard Award for Outstanding Research Management (2002)

NREL/MRI Staff Award for Outstanding Team (Leader) Performance (1998)

NREL/MRI Staff Award for Outstanding Research Performance (1992)

American Chemical Society Outstanding Service Award (1990)