CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--MIT scientists have engineered yeast that can improve the speed and efficiency of ethanol production, a key component to making biofuels a significant part of the U.S. energy supply.
Currently used as a fuel additive to improve gasoline combustibility, ethanol is often touted as a potential solution to the growing oil-driven energy crisis. But there are significant obstacles to producing ethanol: One is that high ethanol levels are toxic to the yeast that ferments corn and other plant material into ethanol.
By manipulating the yeast genome, the researchers have engineered a new strain of yeast that can tolerate elevated levels of both ethanol and glucose, while producing ethanol faster than un-engineered yeast.
The work will be reported in the Dec. 8 issue of Science.
Fuels such as E85, which is 85 percent ethanol, are becoming common in states where corn is plentiful; however, their use is mainly confined to the Midwest because corn supplies are limited and ethanol production technology is not yet efficient enough.
Boosting efficiency has been an elusive goal, but the MIT researchers, led by Hal Alper, a postdoctoral associate in the laboratories of Professor Gregory Stephanopoulos of chemical engineering and Professor Gerald Fink of the Whitehead Institute, took a new approach.
The key to the MIT strategy is manipulating the genes encoding proteins responsible for regulating gene transcription and, in turn, controlling the repertoire of genes expressed in a particular cell. These types of transcription factors bind to DNA and turn genes on or off, essentially controlling what traits a cell expresses.
The traditional way to genetically alter a trait, or phenotype, of an organism is to alter the expression of genes that affect the phenotype. But for traits influenced by many genes, it is difficult to change the phenotype by altering each of those genes, one at a time.