Microbiogen develops yeast that can utilize C5, C6 sugars

By Erin Voegele | August 10, 2009
Report posted Aug. 24, 2009 at 6:25 p.m. CST

Microbiogen, an Australia-based developer of non-genetically modified yeast, recently announced it has secured a $2.5 million government grant. The grant, which was awarded under the Australian government's $15 million Second Generation Biofuels Research and Development Program, will allow the company to further develop its new yeast, which is capable of utilizing both C6 and C5 sugars.

"In a major scientific breakthrough, Microbiogen has developed natural breeding programs to produce an improved variant of yeast that grows efficiently on xylose and ferments glucose - thereby developing the world's first non-genetically modified industrial strains of yeast that will be capable of efficient conversion of almost all plant sugars into ethanol and other useful products - including food and feedstock," said Microbiogen CEO Geoff Bell.

According to Bell, Mircobiogen's new variant of yeast has the same characteristics as the strains already in production, however this new strain is able to survive and convert sugars in more difficult environments. "Microbiogen's yeast is an improved variant of yeast that grows efficiently on xylose, ferments glucose and tolerates harsh industrial conditions," he said.

Bell describes Microbiogen's approach to developing the yeast as classically Darwinian. "We identified the yeast strains that are most adept at converting food sugars into ethanol, and applied a breeding program to these strains," he said. "We then selected those strains that could both grow on the wood sugars extracted from waste biomass and were able to survive in difficult conditions. The best performing yeasts were selected and the process repeated until we had bred a yeast capable of using both the glucose…and xylose."

To date, Microbiogen has tested its new yeast strain on a variety of cellulose-rich waste biomass feedstocks, including corn stover, sugarcane bagasse, pine wastes and newspaper. "Our strains have been tested in-house on sugar streams from industrial pilot facilities from around the world as well as our own lab-scale tests, and we are now in a position to begin large-scale industrial testing," Bell said. Microbiogen is currently in negotiations with a number of potential collaborators that have the facilities required to complete the industrial-scale testing.

"This funding will provide a timely boost to the biofuels industry and progress the development of the next generation of biofuel technologies," said Australia's Minister for Resources and Energy Martin Ferguson. "Second generation biofuel technologies provide unique opportunities to supplement existing fuel supplies in a truly sustainable manner by deriving biofuels from low cost, non-food materials."