Biorefineries challenge petrochemicals with engineered yeast

By Matt Ford

The first session I attended as part of this year’s AAAS meeting focused on the state of the art in, and technological hurdles that limit, biorefineries. An analog to common petrochemical refineries, biorefineries are facilities that create fuel, power, and chemicals from biomass precursors, as opposed to the more traditional petrochemical precursors. They offer a route toward a more renewable and green industrial future, but they do not have the nearly century’s worth of history, research, and success behind them that their counterparts do.

The session, titled "Biorefinery: Towards an Industrial Metabolism," opened by describing a biorefinery as "a unique cross-fertilization between ‘industrial metabolism’ and ‘systems biology.’" The first talk, given by Jens Nielsen from Chalmers University of Technology, focused on work his research group has been undertaking using yeast as a cellular factory for producing a variety of biochemicals. The unit operation of interest here, since yeast was the focus, was fermentation. To start the talk, Nielsen listed off a large list of common stock chemicals that can be created by fermentation; the real trick, however, is to make a specific chemical rather than an amalgam of byproducts.

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