A research team has developed a new source of renewable energy: a biofuel made from genetically engineered yeast cells and ordinary table sugar. This yeast produces oils and fats, known as lipids, that can be used in place of petroleum-derived products.
A research team has been able to rewire yeast cells to enable up to 90 percent of the cell mass to become lipids, which can then be used to produce biodiesel. The yeast used is called Yarrowia lipolytica (PDF). At 90 percent lipid levels, the study has produced the highest levels of lipid content created so far using a genetically engineered yeast cell
Given that fatty materials are building blocks for many household products, this process could be used to produce a variety of items made with petroleum or oils: from nylon to nutrition supplements to fuels. The big winner is seen as biofuel in terms of its economic value.
To produce a biofuel involves the application of an enzyme. Polysaccharides (sugar polymers) that make up the bulk of the sugar source have to be broken down into simple sugars. These are then fermented to produce liquid biofuels. With this new research, the yeast is acting as an enzyme. Yeast are single-celled microorganisms that are classified, along with molds and mushrooms, as members of the Kingdom Fungi.
The advantages of using the yeast cells to produce commercial-grade biodiesel are that yeast cells can be grown anywhere and there is no need to compete with land resources.
The research was undertaken at The University of Texas at Austin's Cockrell School of Engineering. The findings have been published inNature Communications; the research paper is titled “Harnessing Yarrowia lipolytica lipogenesis to create a platform for lipid and biofuel production.”