Biofuels are a focus of energy production as the world transitions away from fossil fuels. But producing enough of them to compete in a market dominated by petroleum fuels has been a glaring problem.
Now, a team led by José Avalos, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering, has developed the first genetically encoded biosensors for producing the biofuels isobutanol and isopentanol in yeast. Isobutanol and isopentanol are alcohols that have high energy content and their use, storage and transportation fit neatly into existing industrial models. Both fuels are produced by Brewer’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae), a single-celled fungus commonly used in making bread, beer and other alcoholic beverages.
The researchers accomplished this by genetically engineering the cells to produce a fluorescent protein when they were making chemicals for biofuels. Scientists could then use the fluorescence as a sensor to look for production.
“We essentially harnessed this transcription factor so that when the cell is producing more biofuel, it also turns on production of a fluorescent protein,” said Avalos. “It’s doing what it normally does, but now we can see the cell respond to enhanced metabolic activity. We are no longer blind.”
This breakthrough could hasten the production of advanced biofuels and possibly help phase out the use of carbon-emitting fossil fuels.