New & Noteworthy

A Factory Without Doors

April 29, 2015

Every factory needs raw materials. Without steel, this is just a pretty factory. And without incoming xylose, a yeast cell set up to make ethanol from biomass is just a pretty cell. Image by Steve Jurvetson via Flickr

Imagine you have built a state-of-the-art factory to make a revolutionary product. The place is filled with gleaming assembly lines and you have hired the best talent in the world to run the place.

Unfortunately there was a glitch in the factory design—the builders forgot to put doors in! Now you can’t get the raw materials in to make that killer product that will change everything.

This may sound contrived or even silly, but it is sort of what is happening in attempts to use yeast to make biofuels from agricultural waste. Scientists have tweaked yeast cells to be able to turn xylose, a major sugar found in agricultural waste, into ethanol. But yeast has no transporter system for this sugar. A bit can get in through the windows, so to speak, but we need to put in a door so enough can get inside to make yeast a viable source for xylose-derived ethanol.

An important step was taken in this direction in a new study by Reznicek and coworkers. They used directed evolution to transform the Gal2 transporter of Saccharomyces cerevisiae into a better xylose transporter. And they succeeded.

After three successive rounds of mutagenesis, they transformed Gal2 from a transporter that prefers glucose into one that prefers xylose. When put in the right background, this mutant protein opens the door for getting yeast to turn agricultural waste into ethanol. Perhaps yeast can help us stave off cataclysmic climate change for just a bit longer. 

The first step was to find the right strain for assaying xylose utilization. They needed a strain lacking 8 hexose transporters, Hxt1-7 and Gal2, because these transporters can take up xylose (albeit at a very low efficiency). Deleting these genes “shuts the windows” and completely prevents the strain from utilizing xylose as a substrate (as well as impairing its ability to use glucose).

This strain was also engineered to be able to utilize xylose. It contained a xylose isomerase gene from an anaerobic fungus and also either overexpressed or lacked several S. cerevisiae genes involved in carbohydrate metabolism. With this strain in hand, the researchers were now ready to add a door to their closed off factory.  

The authors targeted amino acids 292 to 477 in Gal2. This region is thought to be critical for recognizing sugars, based on homology with other hexose transporters. They used mutagenic PCR conditions that generated an average of 4 point mutations in this region, and screened for mutants that grew better than others on plates containing 0.1% xylose.

In their initial screen they selected and replated the 80 colonies that grew best. They then chose the best 9 to analyze further. Of these 9, one mutant which they dubbed variant 1.1 grew better on xylose than a strain carrying wild-type GAL2. Variant 1.1 had a single amino acid change, L311R.

They repeated their assay using variant 1.1 as their starting source. Out of the 14,400 mutants assayed, they found four that did better than variant 1.1. These variants, dubbed 2.1-2.4, all shared the same M435T mutation.  Variant 2.1 had three additional mutations—L301R, K310R, and N314D.

These four new mutants showed better growth on 0.45% xylose, and after 62 hours, all the strains had pretty much used up the xylose in their media. Of the four, variant 2.1 appeared to be the best xylose utilizer: after 62 hours the authors could detect no xylose in the media at all. This variant also grew faster than the others in 0.1% xylose.

Reznicek and coworkers had definitely made Gal2 a better xylose transporter, but they weren’t done yet. They wanted to try to make a door that only let in the raw supplies (xylose) they wanted and not other sugars (glucose).

Up until now, the screens had been done with xylose as the sole carbon source. When they grew variant 2.1 in the presence of both 2% glucose and 2% xylose, they found that it preferentially used the glucose first. Their evolved transporter still preferred glucose over xylose!

Now in some ways this wasn’t surprising, as the mutations had not really affected the part of the protein thought to be involved in recognizing sugars. They next set out to evolve Gal2 so that it would transport xylose preferentially over glucose.

This time they used a slightly different background strain for their screen. This strain, which was deleted for hxk1, hxk2, glk1, and gal1, was unable to use glucose although it could transport it.

They repeated their mutagenesis and looked for mutants that grew best in 10% glucose and 2% xylose. We would predict that any growing mutants would have to transport xylose better than glucose. And this is just what they found.

When they analyzed the mutants, they found that the key mutation in making Gal2 prefer xylose over glucose in the variant 2.1 background was T386A. Based on homology with Hxt7, this mutation happens smack dab in the middle of the sugar recognition part of the protein. Most likely this mutation compromised the ability of Gal2 to recognize glucose, as opposed to improving recognition for xylose.

These experiments represent an important but by no means final step in engineering yeast to make fuel from biomass. We are on our way to a smaller carbon footprint and perhaps a world made somewhat safer from climate change.

First, beer, wine, and bread; next, keeping coral alive and saving countless species from extinction. Nice work, yeast.

by D. Barry Starr, Ph.D., Director of Outreach Activities, Stanford Genetics

Categories: Research Spotlight

Tags: biofuel , evolution , Saccharomyces cerevisiae