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Little Yeastie Beastie Looms Large in New Biofuel Market

researchers develop new biofuel yeast that can consume two kinds of sugar at onceHeaded up by the University of Illinois, a research team has developed a new strain of yeast that can feast on two very different types of plant sugar at the same time. The new breakthrough could lead to far more cost-effective operations for producing biofuel from woody non-food crops. The result would be cheaper biofuels that could compete head to head with conventional petroleum products on the market, and that would be, er…somewhat ironic, given that the research is supported by The Energy Biosciences Institute, which is funded by the oil company BP. Small world, eh?

The Small World of Biofuels

The Energy Biosciences Institute was kickstarted by BP to the tune of a $500 million, ten-year grant. It includes more than 300 faculty and researchers from the University of Illinois, UC Berkeley and the adjacent Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a 320-acre “Energy Farm” in Illinois and the new Helios Building in Berkeley. EBI predates the Gulf oil spill by about three years but if the name rings a bell with you, it could be in connection with that widely-reported study of the natural degradation of the Gulf oil plume by scientists from Lawrence Berkeley.

Two Yeasts for the Price of One

Now, about that yeast breakthrough. In conventional biofuel production, plant sugars are broken down into ethanol by pretty much the same yeast that’s been around for hundreds of years in bakeries and breweries. This yeast is great at consuming sugar in the “soft” form of glucose. However, it stinks at consuming sugar in the “hard” form of xylose, which comes from leaves and other woody parts of a plant. The researchers, including a team from Seoul National University, managed to tweak the yeast into converting xylose 20 times more efficiently, while at the same time it’s still hard at work converting a precursor of glucose called cellobiose.

The Crowded World of Biofuels

The new yeast makes it possible to eliminate costly processing steps, and combine two different fermentations into one. It’s an important boost for lowering the cost of woody biofuels, which are facing stiff competition from other nonfood sources, including seaweed, microalgae, the bacteria E. coli, and even sewage.

Image: Yeast by Treehouse 1977 on flickr.com.


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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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