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Newly Engineered Yeast Overcomes Major Biofuel Hurdle

This post is presented by SBE, the Society for Biological Engineering--a global organization of leading engineers and scientists dedicated to advancing the integration of biology with engineering.

Yeast cell membrane visualized by some membran...

Researchers have engineered a strain of yeast that can be used to produce ethanol far more efficiently than previously possible.

The new yeast's potential lies in its ability to simultaneously consume two types of sugar--glucose and xylose--from biomass. One of the great obstacles in producing ethanol is that previously engineered strains of yeast very quickly absorbed glucose but were slow to absorb xylose.

The new strain, which was created by combining, optimizing and adding earlier advances, is at least 20 percent faster at absorbing xylose than other existing strains. This research was the result of a collaboration led by researchers at the University of Illinois, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the University of California and the energy company BP.

In the excerpt below from, food science and human nutrition professor Yong-Su Jin, postdoctoral researcher Suk-Jin Ha, and graduate student Soo Rin Kim describe details of their work to engineer the new strain:

In a painstaking process of adjustments to the original yeast, Jin and his colleagues converted it to one that will consume both types of sugar faster and more efficiently than any strain currently in use in the biofuel industry. In fact, the new yeast strain simultaneously converts cellobiose (a precursor of glucose) and xylose to ethanol just as quickly as it can ferment either sugar alone.

"If you do the fermentation by using only cellobiose or xylose, it takes 48 hours," said postdoctoral researcher and lead author Suk-Jin Ha. "But if you do the co-fermentation with the cellobiose and xylose, double the amount of is consumed in the same amount of time and produces more than double the amount of ethanol. It's a huge synergistic effect of co-fermentation."

The new is at least 20 percent more efficient at converting xylose to ethanol than other strains, making it "the best xylose-fermenting strain" reported in any study, Jin said.

The team achieved these outcomes by making several critical changes to the organism. First, they gave the yeast a cellobiose transporter. Cellobiose, a part of plant cell walls, consists of two glucose sugars linked together. Cellobiose is traditionally converted to glucose outside the yeast cell before entering the cell through glucose transporters for conversion to ethanol. Having a cellobiose transporter means that the engineered yeast can bring cellobiose directly into the cell. Only after the cellobiose is inside the cell is it converted to glucose.

This approach, initially developed by co-corresponding author Jamie Cate at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California at Berkeley, eliminates the costly step of adding a cellobiose-degrading enzyme to the lignocellulose mixture before the yeast consumes it.

Tackling Xylose First

It has the added advantage of circumventing the yeast's own preference for glucose. Because the glucose can now "sneak" into the yeast in the form of cellobiose, the glucose transporters can focus on drawing xylose into the cell instead. Cate worked with Jonathan Galazka, of UC Berkeley, to clone the transporter and enzyme used in the new strain.

The team then tackled the problems associated with xylose metabolism. The researchers inserted three genes into S. cerevisiae from a xylose-consuming yeast, Picchia stipitis.

Graduate student Soo Rin Kim at the University of Illinois identified a bottleneck in this metabolic pathway, however. By adjusting the relative production of these enzymes, the researchers eliminated the bottleneck and boosted the speed and efficiency of xylose metabolism in the new strain.

They also engineered an artificial "isoenzyme" that balanced the proportion of two important cofactors so that the accumulation of xylitol, a byproduct in the xylose assimilitary pathway, could be minimized. Finally, the team used "evolutionary engineering" to optimize the new strain's ability to utilize xylose.

The cost benefits of this advance in co-fermentation are very significant, Jin said.

"We don't have to do two separate fermentations," he said. "We can do it all in one pot. And the yield is even higher than the industry standard. We are pretty sure that this research can be commercialized very soon."

Jin noted that the research was the result of a successful collaboration among principal investigators in the Energy Biosciences Institute and a BP scientist, Xiaomin Yang, who played a key role in developing the co-fermentation concept and coordinating the collaboration.

The research team's findings are described in the . The Energy Biosciences Institute, a BP-funded initiative, supported the research.

What will the next leap in biofuel research be?


Douglas Clark's picture

Thanks! For the record, that's definitely yeast in the photo, but it's random, underachieving yeast, unlike what's featured in this article. : )