Making the yeast smarter

Chalmers’ quest for sustainable alternatives to petrochemicals continues. Researchers have now further optimized the yeast cell factory by making the yeast smarter and turning waste into value. This brings us one step closer to green substitutes.
​The world is in great need of new ways of producing fuels and chemicals. Oleochemicals are substitutes of petrochemicals, usually derived from plant oils and animal fats but with limited availability. Researchers at the Department of Biology and Biological Engineering are instead designing yeast cell factories to produce the oleochemicals we need. But the titers of fatty alcohol and alkanes are low.

Following up on previous findings (read more about them here), postdoc Yongjin Zhou developed the cell factory further by making yeast smarter. The new findings was recently published in the prestigious Journal of the American Chemical Society.
– We found a novel strategy for production of oleochemicals with higher efficiency. This smarter yeast would pave a way toward a more sustainable society, he says.

Peroxisome is a part of the cell that play a prominent role in taking care of “waste” molecules, which could be toxic or nontoxic. The researchers have now reversed the process, making the peroxisome help produce fatty-acid-derived chemicals instead.
– We have harnessed the yeast organelle peroxisome to improve the production of alkanes, fatty alcohols and olefins, Yongjin Zhou explains.
– This “turn waste to value” concept would make the process more efficient and economical. The findings and strategy could be easily applied to establish efficient cell factories for production of other chemicals of high value, and also biofuels and pharmaceuticals.

The industry is expressing interest in the cell factories, and Yongjin Zhou’s work clearly shows the high potential of yeast for production of the chemicals we need, in an alternative and sustainable way.
So what is the next step?
– We are continuing to improve the productivity of these olechemicals in yeast, trying to further decrease the costs and making it competitive to current processes. I will finish my contract in Chalmers in the end of this year, but my colleagues are following up the project to further optimize the metabolic pathways for enhancing the production of fatty acids and alkanes, Yongjin Zhou says.
– I will go back to China and establish my research group in Chinese Academy of Sciences. There I will focus on establishing bioprocesses to produce bioactive natural products, that can be used as pharma- and nutraceuticals.

Text: Mia Malmstedt
Photo: Martina Butorac

Published: Thu 24 Nov 2016.