There is a new development in the race to create cellulosic biofuel by an Illinois food science professor and his team. Professor Yong-Su Jin, graduate student Soo Rin Kim, postdoctoral researcher Suk-Jin Ha, and a few other colleagues were able to engineer a strain of yeast that can consume two types of sugars at the same time to produce ethanol. This new strain greatly reduces or possibly even eliminates several huge inefficiencies that occur with the current method of biofuel production.
This awesome new development was the child of a collaborative effort between the University of Illinois, the University of California, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and BP, the energy company. The research was supported by the Energy Biosciences Institute, which is a BP-funded initiative.
This new strain of yeast is 20 percent more efficient at converting xylose to ethanol. Xylose is normally very difficult to utilize in ethanol production. The other sugar that is a part of the process is glucose, a six-carbon sugar that is pretty easy to ferment. Xylose is a five-carbon sugar.
The biofuel industry uses Saccharomyces cerevisiae, a type of yeast that has been used for hundreds of years for brewing and baking. Instead of baking bread, the yeast is used to convert plant sugars into bioethanol. But, this yeast doesn’t work well against xylose, which is a significant component of the lignocellulose that makes up the stem and leaves of a plant.
The team has been trying to find a way to overcome the problem with altered yeasts sucking up all the glucose in a mixture before they go after the xylose. And, when it finally does reach the xylose, it works slowly, which makes this biofuel production method very expensive.
This new breakthrough, where yeast was created that can metabolize both sugars at the same time, is a significant stride toward making biofuel an attainable fuel for the future.