Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have developed a new strain of yeast which may lead to more efficient biofuel production.
The yeast, called Yarrowia lipolytica, quickly converts simple sugars into oils and fats called lipids, which can subsequently be used instead of petroleum based products. These lipids might be used in biofuel, or even in waxes, lubricants, and other materials that contain ingredients made from plant and animal fats.
The yeast was developed in the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering, by a team led by associate professor Hal Alper. Last year, Alper and his team developed a renewable equivalent to “sweet crude,” the premium form of petroleum. They did this by combining yeast and table sugar, and have been building upon that research since. Their new strain of Yarrowia produces lipids 1.6 times faster than the previous version, reaching 40 grams per liter, which is enough to get started on creating biofuels.
The team used a process of metabolic engineering and directed evolution to isolate the most efficient cells and breed new generations of the yeast, eventually leading to this new strain. While their method and platform are pending patent approval, the team isn’t taking a break. They are continuing to work with the yeast in order to make it even more efficient, and to expand on the types of lipids they can produce.
The teams success could have a number of positive effects. Increased use of biofuels aligns with the Department of Energy’s goals of developing renewable, cost-effective biofuels from non-food sources. Doing so would be a step towards energy independence for the United States, and would allow for a significant decrease in petroleum use. As biofuels developed with Yarrowia lipolytica catch on, they could reduce petroleum dependence worldwide.
Petroleum is used in a wide variety of products beyond gasoline, and developing alternatives could reduce the eventual costs to consumers across a range of products.