One of the greater issues associated with biofuel is that the sheer amount of grain required to create it could potentially feed millions of people. In fact, when the ‘Biofuel Revolution’ started under the Bush Administration in 2007, the volume of crops diverted to biofuel production had been said to be impacting food supplies worldwide. To respond to this issue, researchers at the University of California have reportedly created a ‘super yeast’ made from a selection of genes from a common fungus, all combined with yeast. The new super yeast is anticipated to become a cost effective alternative to food crops (such as grain and soy) in the creation of biofuel, as well as an agent that could reportedly “chew its way through wood and other tough plants.”
So why a yeast and not some form genetically modified-crop or substitute crop? According to research from the University of California Berkeley, in their bid to find an alternative, the team realized that they would need a ‘super-yeast’ to break down the plant material that isn’t used as a food source, such as woody plants and other biological waste products.
In traditional biofuel production, yeast breaks down plant sugars into alcohol, but with more robust plant life the yeast is unable to undertake the same process. In order to create their super yeast, the Berkeley team added genes from the fungus Neurospora Crassa (a form of bread mold), which has the capability to digest cellulose, but does not produce alcohol. So when combined with the yeast, the resulting product has the potential to break down any organic material and make biofuel out of it — be it paper, fruit peel, bark or other plant material.
Although this may sound like a miracle discovery, this alternative is not without its problems. First, to initiate this practice, a cost-effective way to process woody plant matter into biofuel must be found. Currently, so-called cellulosic biofuels are made by deploying enzymes to convert cellulose into a form of plant sugar, which then must go through additional processing to yield the glucose that yeast can digest. Secondly, there is the potential risk of disrupting natural ecologies processes. But with car makers and even military branches utilizing biofuel, demand has never been higher, and thus if this is to become a mainstream reality, cautious steps must be taken to ensure that production isn’t coming at a sacrifice.
Lead image from Flickr © mr.bologna