Using Yeast To Make Fuels And Chemicals

Headhsot of Assistant Professor Hal AlperA new study led by Hal Alper, assistant professor and Fellow of the Paul D. & Betty Robertson Meek Centennial Professorship, along with a team of graduate and undergraduate students was recently published on advances in efficient conversion of renewable plant material into fuels and chemicals.

The study, “Rewiring yeast sugar transporter preference through modifying a conserved protein motif,” was published online December 16 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“This research provides an intellectual leap toward the rewiring of yeast for biomass sugar utilization,” said Professor Hal Alper. “We have been working with these transporter proteins for the past few years and have been able to demonstrate how critical sequence-level modifications can be used to rewire these proteins.  These transporters are now being combined with other advances in our lab to develop yeasts that can efficiently and rapidly convert biomass into industrially-relevant fuels and chemicals.”

Plant biomass is comprised of a number of sugars including 5-carbon (pentose) and 6-carbon (hexose) compounds.  Common industrial organisms such as yeast are able to use the 6-carbon compounds, but struggle to utilize the 5-carbon sugars, especially the most abundant form—xylose.  The Alper group has been working on metabolic engineering and protein engineering strategies to solve this problem.  Solutions to this problem will increase the efficiency of biofuels production.

graphic showing how the Alper group has rewired transporter proteins to shift sugars preference from hexoses to xylose.One particular limitation 5-carbon sugar utilization is the transport of these molecules into the cell—a process that is facilitated by molecular transporter proteins.  This work provides the first rational manner to alter the sugar preference of a protein through defined sequence-level modifications.  The research team identified a conserved motif within these proteins that can be changed to reprogram function.  The result is that transporter proteins that were originally designed for hexose sugars were rewired into pentose transporters.  In doing so, this work can increase the efficiency of pentose utilization by yeasts.

This work was funded by a grant through the National Science Foundation.



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