BackgroundVanillin is the main byproduct of alkaline-pretreated lignocellulosic biomass during the process of fermentable-sugar production and a potent inhibitor of ethanol production by yeast. Yeast cells are usually exposed to vanillin during the industrial production of bioethanol from lignocellulosic biomass. Therefore, vanillin toxicity represents a major barrier to reducing the cost of bioethanol production.ResultsIn this study, we analysed the effects of oxygen-radical treatment on vanillin molecules. Our results showed that vanillin was converted to vanillic acid, protocatechuic aldehyde, protocatechuic acid, methoxyhydroquinone, 3,4-dihydroxy-5-methoxybenzaldehyde, trihydroxy-5-methoxybenzene, and their respective ring-cleaved products, which displayed decreased toxicity relative to vanillin and resulted in reduced vanillin-specific toxicity to yeast during ethanol fermentation. Additionally, after a 16-h incubation, the ethanol concentration in oxygen-radical-treated vanillin solution was 7.0-fold greater than that from non-treated solution, with similar results observed using alkaline-pretreated rice straw slurry with oxygen-radical treatment.ConclusionsThis study analysed the effects of oxygen-radical treatment on vanillin molecules in the alkaline-pretreated rice straw slurry, thereby finding that this treatment converted vanillin to its derivatives, resulting in reduced vanillin toxicity to yeast during ethanol fermentation. These findings suggest that a combination of chemical and oxygen-radical treatment improved ethanol production using yeast cells, and that oxygen-radical treatment of plant biomass offers great promise for further improvements in bioethanol-production processes.