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Engineered Yeasts to Soon Produce Biofuels

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Oil producing yeasts  © 2014 The University of Texas at Austin
Oil producing yeasts
© 2014 The University of Texas at Austin

Yeasts are wonderful microbes.  Sure they can be annoying too if they cause you to itch in the nether regions.  But then, they are responsible for making our lives livelier on occasion through bread and beer, champagne and other lively spirits.

So what do you think about yeasts that convert sugars into fats?  Well, that’s the sort of yeast that a team from The University of Texas at Austin has come up with, as published in the journal Metabolic Engineering.

Of course they didn’t make this yeast to make us fat.  Most of the oils that we use for cooking, soaps and detergents, cosmetics, and other stuff comes from plants.  The holy grail of this research is to eventually bring down the cost of production of biofuels.  Team leader Hal Alper says that his mutant yeast can convert ordinary table sugar into a “renewable version of sweet crude,” which can eventually be refined to yield biogasoline.

So how did they do it?  They engineered the Yarrowia lipolytica fungus to improve its ability to convert simple sugars into lipids – oils and fats and what have you.  They used the yeast to convert sugar in solution into lipids in a test tube.  Since the yeasts that yield more fats tend to float, the researchers harvested these cells for further evolution.  The result of successive harvesting is a mutated yeast that produced 1.6 times more lipids than the previous strain, 2 and a half times faster.  Furthermore, they yield was 40 grams per liter, which makes the mutant strain an ideal candidate for producing biofuels.

Not only that, the yeasts could also be used to produce other oleochemicals such as waxes, cosmetics, solvents, lubricants and all other kinds of wonderful stuff.

We just hope that they soon hit a slippery slope and make all this kind of stuff possible to produce By just adding these yeasts to sugar.

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