Fresh out of a lab in The University of Texas at Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering, a new source of renewable energy has been developed. A team of students led by assistant professor Hal Alper of the Cockrell School’s McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering developed a new biofuel from genetically engineered yeast cells and table sugar. Alper calls the fuel “a renewable version of sweet crude.”
The process works because yeast cells produce lipids after fermenting sugar, which can then be used in place of petroleum-derived products. Unique to this team’s engineered yeast is the ability to produce highly concentrated lipids–up to 90% of the yeast cells’ mass become lipids. This is an increase of nearly 60 times the original lipid concentrating capacity of yeast cells. So far, other researchers have been able to increase lipid content by 50-80%, and the yeast do not always produce lipids from sugar.
Also unique to the researchers’ platform is the ability to grow the yeast under “normal” conditions. Commonly, nitrogen starvation is used to increase yeast cells’ stores of lipid. But by manipulating the yeast strain Yarrowia lipolytica though genetic alterations to turn on and off genes affecting lipid production, the researchers are able to grow the yeast anywhere, even on an industry scale. Competition for land resources, a problem common to many other biofuels such as corn and soybean, is not an issue.
This yeast-produced biofuel has a “lipid value approaching the concentration seen in many industrial biochemical processes,” said Alper. “Theoretically, [it can be used] to power a car.” However, not just the automotive industry can benefit from this biofuel: lipids are building blocks for a number of products, providing the potential to use the process to make a variety of items traditionally made from petroleum (nylon, nutrition supplements…). Since the global biofuel market is booming (the market is predicted to rise from $82.7 billion in 2011 to $185.3 billion in 2021), UT Austin’s patent on this platform will be extremely valuable.
Alper’s team received funding by the Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Program, the DuPont Young Professor Grant, and the Welch Foundation under grant F-1753. The study was published on January 20th in Nature Communications.