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Sequenced Genome Could Enable More Efficient Biofuel Production

A strain of yeast, which thrives on turning sugar cane and other tough grasses into ethanol and might be used as biofuel, has had its genome completely sequenced by researchers at Duke University Medical Center.

"Understanding this microbe may enable more efficient biofuel production, and also will produce even more robust industrial organisms that are versatile and capable of producing advanced biofuels from non-food crops like switchgrass," said Lucas Argueso, PhD, who worked with researchers from Brazil and the University of North Carolina on the study.

When oil prices rose to new highs in the 1970s, Brazil invested in alternative biofuels created from the country's abundant sugar cane crops. Commercially available baker's yeast was used to break down the sugar cane into ethanol, but genetic tests showed that this yeast quickly disappeared in the harsh environment of industrial fermentation vats.

However, a yeast that grows naturally on the sugar cane was still viable in the vats and lasted through many more generations. This yeast strain, known as PE-2, is the one that the researchers studied and mapped.

"We took an organism that is hugely important from an industrial standpoint but completely unknown in terms of its genetic and molecular properties," Argueso said. "We learned much more about how a complex genome is organized and may contribute to a robust and well-adapted organism."