Purdue University researchers have genetically engineered a super yeast using genes from a fungus to re-engineer a yeast’s genetic code. The improved a strain of yeast can produce more biofuel from cellulosic plant material by fermenting all five types of the plant’s sugars.

Nancy Ho, a research professor of chemical engineering at Purdue explains, “Natural yeast can ferment three sugars: galactose, manose and glucose. The original yeast (Professor Ho developed) added xylose to that, and now the fifth, arabinose, has been added.”  Adding the fungus genes allowed the yeast to create necessary enzymes to get through those steps.  That about covers the sugars obtainable.  It’s serious news for any ethanol production.

Thus the sugars found in plant material biomass such as corn stalks, straw, switchgrass and other crop residues could be used as ethanol fuel sources.  The fungus genes should increase the amount of ethanol that can be produced from cellulosic material. Arabinose makes up about 10 percent of the sugars contained in those plants.  That’s part one.

The resulting yeast, if it can be produced for use in economically viable commercial quantities, may have an important impact on ethanol production.  Just what a complete commercial process would entail isn’t discussed, but having new sources of biomass material outside of the corn and sugar cane crops may serve to promote more effort in ethanol powered fuel cells.  Oxidizing or burning ethanol by combustions still leaves the big majority of available energy unused.  More is good, cheaper is better, but abundance at low cost should incite more effort in the fuel cell area.

Part two is the Purdue group has been able to develop strains that are more resistant to acetic acid. Acetic acid, the main ingredient in vinegar, is natural to plants and released with sugars before the fermentation process during ethanol production. Acetic acid gets into yeast cells and slows the fermentation process, adding to the cost of ethanol production.

Nathan Mosier, an associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Purdue explains, “It inhibits the microorganism. It doesn’t produce as much biofuel, and it produces it more slowly. If it slows down too much, it’s not a good industrial process.”

The group accomplished the choice of genetic change by compared the genes in the more resistant strains to others to determine which genes made the yeast more resistant to acetic acid. By improving the expression of those genes, they increased the yeast’s resistance.

The group is reporting achieving about 72.5% yield from five-sugar mixtures containing glucose, galactose, mannose, xylose, and arabinose in the published fungus gene insertion paper. This co-fermentation of five-sugar mixture is important and crucial for application in industrial economical ethanol production using lignocellulosic biomass as the feedstock.

Research assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering Miroslav Sedlak said, “This gave the yeast a new tool set.  This gives the yeast the tools it needs to get arabinose into the chain.”

Having the acetic acid genetics in hand might be the most immediately useful segment of the group’s work.  When the results of the paper on the acetic acid are integrated better yeasts could result further increasing the efficiency of biological production methods for biofuels.

This is good work.  It will get serious attention form the ethanol community as cost cutting and efficiency is key to the industry’s growth and survival in a volatile supply and price situation.  Ethanol is getting more attention across the world than national media shows, and ethanol fuel cells could be available soon as well.

While it doesn’t go to the costs of the preprocessing needed to release the sugars, all available sugars going to ethanol increases the economic output thus allowing more costs to preprocessing.  The effort in preprocessing isn’t over by any means, but this is progress and when factored in to production cost analysis, industrial facility development will come quicker. Perhaps marginal farming potential and subsistence farming might get a boosted sooner than later.


20 Comments so far

  1. Your Future on June 20, 2010 3:55 PM

    Anything to keep the killer car culture rolling, eh?

    No matter the engineering, it’s still gonna die.

  2. jpstraley on June 21, 2010 8:19 AM

    Fermenting the 5-C sugars has always been a problem with EtOH production. Good news, here. Next, we need to use the lignin carbon stream. That will be tougher. Even fungi cannot use direct enzymatic means to initiate the degradation!


  3. Thurmond Moore III on July 23, 2010 4:41 PM

    I have 1600 acres of cellulose, a small sweet sorghum test plot and a Small Alcohol Fuel Producers Permit from the Government. My issue is that all the newest technology (enzymes and yeast) are available to Large producers (millions of gallons per year) but not available to small producers such as myself in rural America. I will get excited when I can get the same technology as those who want to make a big profit. I just want to make my ranch self sufficient but big business doesn’t care. I would love to partner with a large university to make these products available for the little guy.

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  12. Charroll on December 22, 2010 12:17 PM

    A very readable site: no glitz.

    I would be interested though in using the acetic acid route to make thanol for both C5s and C6s are amenable to this and the yields would be (theoretically) 50% higher. I have tried this in a lboratory and can see the need for hydrogen to compliment the issue and wondered whether nascent hydrogen would work. The rheology seems to work but making it work in a laboratory is difficult.

  13. Charroll on December 22, 2010 12:18 PM

    A very readable site: no glitz.

    I would be interested though in using the acetic acid route to make thanol for both C5s and C6s are amenable to this and the yields would be (theoretically) 50% higher. I have tried this in a lboratory and can see the need for hydrogen to compliment the issue and wondered whether nascent hydrogen would work. The rheology seems to work but making it work in a laboratory is difficult.

    (Sorry mistyped my email.)

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