A Combined Approach

FROM THE MARCH ISSUE: Partnered expertise helps yeast developers keep up with evolution in the ethanol industry.
By Matt Thompson | February 18, 2020

It’s an exciting time for the biofuels yeast industry, says Kevin Wenger, executive vice president of Mascoma, a subsidiary of Lallemand Biofuels and Distilled Spirits. When Wenger first entered the industry 20 years ago, there wasn’t a lot of differentiation between yeast strains used for biofuels production, he says.

That’s changed with the adoption of engineered yeasts. “It’s really incredible to see how far we’ve come. We have yeasts that are producing enzymes, and we have yeasts that are capable of increasing the ethanol yield and other things that nobody was really counting on yeast to do years ago.

Traditionally, there was a lot of innovation in the enzyme market in biofuels, and now I think yeast kind of caught up with enzymes in terms of the amount of innovation and value that they’re bringing to the table.”

Partners in Yeast Production
Mascoma hopes to bring further innovation to the table through a partnership announced a little over a year ago. Late in 2018, Mascoma and NextFerm, an Israeli biotechnology company, announced a partnership and development of a new strain of yeast. Wenger says the idea behind the partnership was to combine expertise in genetic and metabolic yeast engineering.

Tzafra Cohen, NextFerm’s senior vice president of research and development, says NextFerm’s approach to yeast development relies on breeding techniques, rather than genetic modification. “We are mostly relying on the yeasts that were isolated from nature, over millions of years of evolution,” she says. “In this way, we can isolate the yeast with super resistance to specific stress, and then we are modifying and we are improving the yeast to have the industrial characterization, like being very potent, being very economic with a super high yield, etc., while keeping the very unique environmental resistance.”

Cohen says the non-GMO technique NextFerm employs allows the company to modify many genes simultaneously, which is important in the development of specific traits. “Genetic modification is a very unique point change in one gene or several genes that are very precise and accurate,” she says. “The combination of these approaches and technologies has been very great. You can then have an ethanol-producing yeast that can have a very potent ethanol production with, for example, high heat resistance.”

Wenger adds, “The types of things that we’re looking into are characteristics that are difficult to engineer—so things like a yeast’s overall ability to withstand temperature excursions or pH excursions, or maybe a yeast’s ability to ferment very fast. That’s the type of thing we’re hoping to do is combine those discoveries that are based on selection of natural yeast with our engineering approach.”

Wenger says Mascoma and NextFerm hope to take advantage of recent advancements in DNA sequencing technology. “Our overall goal is that we’ll be able to identify these different characteristics, link them to a genetic basis and then you can use many different technology approaches to integrate them into a commercial product,” he says. “We are trying to see what we can discover by combining these approaches.”

Development Schedule
Wenger says the partnership is still young, so it’s too early to talk about specific developments the two companies have achieved. He adds, though, that they hope to share more specifics about their efforts in the next one to two years.

Cohen says announcements about new products will happen in phases. “I think that the most important thing is that we’re predicting to have a stream. So it will be one, and the next generation somewhere in the future, etc., because we see the potential is huge, as is the prospect to proceed to further improve the strain.”

While consumers may sometimes hold a negative view of genetic modification, Wenger says it’s not a major concern for NextFerm and Mascoma. “In the ag industry in the U.S., there’s not that big of a concern about biotechnology or genetic modification, or at least it’s generally accepted as a safe technology,” he says. “So in that market, you’re going to pursue performance features via the fastest way possible and use all of the technology tools in the toolbox to get there as fast as you can.” Direct-to-consumer products, however, take a different approach and highlight the tradeoff between speed of development and non-GMO techniques.

A Strong Collaboration
NextFerm and Mascoma are both happy with the partnership so far. “We’ve got a good cultural fit working together with those folks and that’s a really important part of R&D: people working productively together,” Wenger says. “We’ve been happy that there’s been a great fit.”

“We have a very good collaboration with them,” Cohen says, adding the teams mesh well professionally and personally. The speed of development is bolstered by the teams’ different areas of expertise, she adds.

Constant progress is important for the ethanol industry, Wenger adds. “It needs to be constantly finding ways to reduce the production cost and increase the yield of ethanol and improve the value of the coproducts and things like that, so I think yeast and bacteria will play a key role in all of that development in the coming years.”

Need for Speed
Mascoma and NextFerm aren’t the only yeast developers taking advantage of combined expertise. Brian Brazeau, Novozymes’ president for North America and head of bioengineering, says his company also takes a combined approach to yeast innovation.

“If you look at the approach we’ve taken where we’ve combined different types of biological techniques, one of them with our partner Microbiogen, it just amplifies the rate at which we’re able to bring new technologies to the market,” Brazeau says.

Microbiogen is a biotechnology company that specializes in industrial yeast development.
“The industry is pushing for more robustness and tolerance, and so we are seeing some developments in this direction,” Cohen says. “I think that this results in a great economic improvement for the whole industry.”

Brazeau says, “Breeding allows you to take advantage of the inherent robustness that organisms that exist in nature must have. Breeding technologies help you take advantage of those natural robustness characteristics.”

He adds the pace at which ethanol producers update and change their processes has required yeast producers to keep up. “They’re always trying to do things better and better [and that] presents a cool challenge for us.”

Author: Matt Thompson
Associate Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine