Towards More Robust Saccharomyces cerevisiae Strains for Lignocellulosic Bioethanol Production: Lessons from process concepts and physiological investigations
Dwindling oil reserves and the negative impacts of fossil fuels on the environment call for more sustainable energy sources. First-generation bioethanol produced from sugar cane and corn has met some of these needs, but it competes with the food supply for raw materials. Lignocellulosic biomass is an abundant non-edible raw material that can be converted to ethanol using the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. However, due to the inherent recalcitrance to degradation of lignocellulosic raw materials, harsh pretreatment methods must be used to liberate fermentable sugars, resulting in the release of compounds such as acetic acid, furan aldehydes and phenolics, that inhibit yeast metabolism. This thesis research aimed to identify bottlenecks in terms of inhibitory compounds related to ethanol production from two lignocellulosic raw materials, Arundo donax and spruce, and furthermore to harness the physiological responses to these inhibitors to engineer more robust yeast strains. A comparative study of separate hydrolysis and fermentation (SHF) and simultaneous saccharification and fermentation (SSF) revealed that acetic acid limits xylose utilization in pretreated Arundo donax, whereas the furan aldehydes furfural and 5-hydroxymethyl-2-furaldehyde (HMF) were hypothesized to be key inhibitors in pretreated spruce. The impacts of furfural and HMF on the redox and energy metabolism of S. cerevisiae were studied in detail in chemostat and batch cultivations. After adding the inhibitors to the feed medium of chemostat cultivations, the intracellular levels of NADH, NADPH, and ATP were found to decrease by 40, 75, and 19%, respectively, suggesting that furan aldehydes drain the cells of reducing power. A strong effect on redox metabolism was also observed after pulsing furfural and HMF in the xylose consumption phase in batch cultures. The drainage of reducing power was also observed in a genome-wide study of transcription that found that genes related to NADPH-requiring processes, such as nitrogen and sulphur assimilation, were significantly induced. The redox metabolism was engineered by overproducing the protective metabolite and antioxidant glutathione. Strains with an increased intracellular level of reduced glutathione were found to sustain ethanol production for longer duration in SSF of pretreated spruce, yielding 70% more ethanol than did the wild type strain.