A tweaked yeast can make ethanol from cornstalks and a harvest’s other leftovers

The process could tap underused sources of renewable fuels

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The Golden Harvest Virtual Field Days provide farmers with in-season agronomic management recommendations to finish the 2020 corn and soybean growing season strong. (PRNewsfoto/Golden Harvest)
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When corn farmers harvest their crop, they often leave the stalks, leaves and spent cobs to rot in the fields. Now, engineers have fashioned a new strain of yeast that can convert this inedible debris into ethanol, a biofuel. If the process can be scaled up, this largely untapped renewable energy source could help reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

Previous efforts to convert this fibrous material, called corn stover, into fuel met with limited success. Before yeasts can do their job, corn stover must be broken down, but this process often generates by-products that kill yeasts. But by tweaking a gene in common baker’s yeast, researchers have engineered a strain that can defuse those deadly by-products and get on with the job of turning sugar into ethanol.

The new yeast was able to produce over 100 grams of ethanol for every liter of treated corn stover, an efficiency comparable to the standard process using corn kernels to make the biofuel, the researchers report June 25 in Science Advances.

“They’ve produced a more resilient yeast,” says Venkatesh Balan, a chemical engineer at the University of Houston not involved in the research. The new strain may benefit biofuel producers trying to harness materials like corn stover, he says.

In the United States, most ethanol is made from corn, the country’s largest crop, and is mixed into most of the gasoline sold at gas stations. Corn ethanol is a renewable energy source, but it has limitations. Diverting corn to make ethanol can detract from the food supply, and expanding cropland just to plant corn for biofuel clears natural habitats (SN: 12/21/20). Converting inedible corn stover into ethanol could increase the biofuel supply without having to plant more crops.

“Corn can’t really displace petroleum as a raw material for fuels,” says metabolic engineer Felix Lam of MIT. “But we have an alternative.”

Lam and colleagues started with Saccharomyces cerevisiae, or common baker’s yeast. Like sourdough bakers and brewers, biofuel producers already use yeast: It can convert sugars in corn kernels into ethanol (SN: 9/19/17).

But unlike corn kernels with easy-access sugars, corn stover contains sugars bound in lignocellulose, a plant compound that yeast can’t break down. Applying harsh acids can free these sugars, but the process generates toxic by-products called aldehydes that can kill yeasts.

But Lam’s team had an idea — convert the aldehydes into something tolerable to yeast. The researchers already knew that by adjusting the chemistry of the yeast’s growing environment, they could improve its tolerance to alcohol, which is also harmful at high concentrations. With that in mind, Lam and colleagues homed in on a yeast gene called GRE2, which helps convert aldehydes into alcohol. The team randomly generated about 20,000 yeast variants, each with a different, genetically modified version of GRE2. Then, the researchers placed the horde of variants inside a flask that also contained toxic aldehydes to see which yeasts would survive.

Multiple variants survived the gauntlet, but one dominated. With this battle-tested version of GRE2, the researchers found that the modified baker’s yeast could produce ethanol from treated corn stover almost as efficiently as from corn kernels. What’s more, the yeast could generate ethanol from other woody materials, including wheat straw and switchgrass (SN: 1/14/14). “We have a single strain that can accomplish all this,” Lam says.

This strain resolves a key challenge in fermenting ethanol from fibrous materials like corn stover, Balan says. But “there are many more improvements that will have to happen to make this technology commercially viable,” he adds, such as logistical challenges in harvesting, transporting and storing large volumes of corn stover.

“There are so many moving parts to this problem,” Lam acknowledges. But he thinks his team’s findings could help kick-start a “renewable pipeline” that harnesses underused, sustainable fuel sources. The vision, he says, is to challenge the reign of fossil fuels.