Unprecedented genome analysis of budding yeasts to help biofuels research

In Wisconsin, an unprecedented comparison of hundreds of species of yeasts has helped geneticists brew up an expansive picture of their evolution over the last hundreds of millions of years, including an analysis of the way they evolved individual appetites for particular food sources that may be a boon to biofuels research.

Researchers led by labs at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Vanderbilt University sequenced and compared the genomes of 332 species of budding yeasts.

“This is the first large genome project like this that actually looks at hundreds of different eukaryotic species, not different individuals or isolates of the same species,” says Chris Todd Hittinger, a UW–Madison genetics professor and one of the senior authors of the study.

Describing yeast metabolism and the related genes is important for bioenergy production, which relies on yeast and other microbes to turn plant cells into useful, renewable fuels or compounds that can be further refined into fuels. Modern yeasts may have become pickier eaters, but the new analysis of their genomes can help biofuels researchers pinpoint helpful skills among a daunting number of candidate yeasts.

“Because these species have such a broad appetite and because they put their carbon in other places than in ethanol, they’re pushing carbon down different pathways,” Hittinger says. “In some cases, it’s right toward different fuels, fuel precursors or higher-value chemicals.”

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