Republic of Poland

Biofuel from yeast and algae – NCN grant

21 February 2018

Dr Adam Dobrowolski from the Department of Biotechnology and Food Microbiology at the Faculty of Biotechnology and Food Science received 1.5 million PLN for research in the SONATA BIS 7 competition. He’s going to check if and how the biomass of brown marine algae can be used by yeast to produce biofuels.

Yarrowia lipolytica yeast is found in cheese and long-matured cold cuts, it is used to produce erythritol, which is a sweetener, and citric acid. It’s completely harmless, it also has great metabolic potential for producing a variety of valuable compounds – says dr Adam Dobrowolski, who wants to use the yeast to produce biofuels using algae biomass as a substrate.

As he explains: the increasing world population means an increasing demand for food and energy, therefore we should look for new sources of feedstock and live in line with the idea of sustainability. And one of its key elements is the economy based on knowledge and on renewable energy sources. The consumption of fossil feedstock can be partially limited by replacing it with fuels based on plant-based biomass. However, it requires an enormous acreage of farmland intended for non-nutritive purposes. The development of biotechnology allows to produce biofuels by microorganisms that are found in the natural environment and have the ability to create and accumulate lipids, that is fats essential for biodiesel to be created.

Wrocław University of Environmental and Life Sciences, WUELS, dr Adam Dobrowolski
fot. Tomasz Lewandowski

Yarrowia lipolytica yeast is one of the best researched oil-producing microorganisms but, like all living organisms, it needs to eat something in order to grow – and for the entire process to be economically profitable its food needs to be as cheap as possible. That’s why I thought of algae – fresh water, which has been slowly running out, isn’t required for their production, quite the contrary – plenty of algae are washed ashore and it’s a problem for countries with long shorelines. We consume a relatively small amount of algae, so I’m not competing with food production here. They don’t occupy farmland acreage, their cultivation doesn’t require the use of fertilizers. Algae biomass therefore seems to be an attractive substrate to be used by microorganisms producing valuable substances – explains dr Dobrowolski. He spent the last two months at the Technical University of Denmark where he made connections with Scandinavian scientific institutions and companies that make algae hydrolyzates, which means processing of algae into substances ready to be used in laboratories. They’re going to provide feedstock for the research conducted within the SONATA BIS 7 grant.

One of the main components of algae’ cell walls is alginate (often used in laboratories as cell immobilizer) that few organism are able to utilize, that is to digest and use to produce other compounds. Therefore the essence of the research is going to be the introduction of alginate utilization into yeast, its genetic modification. Dr Dobrowolski’s team is going to use for this purpose the CRISPR/Cas9 method – a relatively new genetic engineering tool that allows to make very accurate changes to the genome. Later on, the team’s going to check if the yeast modified that way will produce lipids.

Wrocław University of Environmental and Life Sciences, WUELS,
fot. Kerstin Riemer

– If we succeed, we will obtain feedstock for producing biofuels that is made by microorganisms. It will be the exact same energy source as the biofuel currently made from canola – sums up dr Adam Dobrowolski. – Thanks to the possibilities offered by synthetic biology in conjunction with the development of research on basal metabolic rate, based on yeast cells, we’re going to create a ”biological factory” that will combine the management of organic compounds with the production of valuable chemical substances. If, in the future, we manage to introduce bioproducts obtained using microorganisms into the everyday life, it’s going to be a breakthrough in the sustainable development of our civilization.