A team of researchers has developed a new strain of yeast that could make the production of biofuels two times more efficient by breaking down an elusive sugar chain present in plant stems called xylose. Up until now, two processes have been used to break down all of the sugars contained in plants — one for simple sugars and one for complex sugars. This new yeast has the ability to break down simple and complex sugars at once, making the production of biofuels faster and yielding more end product.

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Researchers at University of Illinois, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the University of California and the energy company BP joined together on the study. Conventional yeasts go for simple sugars first, leaving more complex sugars behind. This makes the process of fermenting plants time and energy consuming. Xylose is present in the stalks and stems of plants and is a complex wood sugar: “a five-carbon sugar that is very abundant in lignocellulosic biomass but not in our food,” said Yong-Su Jin, a professor of food science and human nutrition at Illinois and a principal investigator on the study, “most yeast cannot ferment xylose.”

Jin and his colleagues sought to create a yeast that could co-ferment both single and complex sugars at once, therefore speeding along the process. The team genetically engineered the yeast to draw xylose into its cell walls where the fermenting process takes place and then created an isoenzyme that helped decrease a harmful by-product of the process. “We don’t have to do two separate fermentations,” Jin said. “We can do it all in one pot. And the yield is even higher than the industry standard. We are pretty sure that this research can be commercialized very soon.” One of the biggest arguments against biofuels is the energy that it takes to create them — if Jin and his colleagues can commercialize this yeast as quickly as they believe, they’ll be one step closer to making the world of biofuels even more efficient.

Via Science Daily