Minimal metabolic engineering of Saccharomyces cerevisiae for efficient anaerobic xylose fermentation: a proof of principle


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When xylose metabolism in yeasts proceeds exclusively via NADPH-specific xylose reductase and NAD-specific xylitol dehydrogenase, anaerobic conversion of the pentose to ethanol is intrinsically impossible. When xylose reductase has a dual specificity for both NADPH and NADH, anaerobic alcoholic fermentation is feasible but requires the formation of large amounts of polyols (e.g., xylitol) to maintain a closed redox balance. As a result, the ethanol yield on xylose will be sub-optimal. This paper demonstrates that anaerobic conversion of xylose to ethanol, without substantial by-product formation, is possible in Saccharomyces cerevisiae when a heterologous xylose isomerase (EC is functionally expressed. Transformants expressing the XylA gene from the anaerobic fungus Piromyces sp. E2 (ATCC 76762) grew in synthetic medium in shake-flask cultures on xylose with a specific growth rate of 0.005 h−1. After prolonged cultivation on xylose, a mutant strain was obtained that grew aerobically and anaerobically on xylose, at specific growth rates of 0.18 and 0.03 h−1, respectively. The anaerobic ethanol yield was 0.42 g ethanol · g xylose−1 and also by-product formation was comparable to that of glucose-grown anaerobic cultures. These results illustrate that only minimal genetic engineering is required to recruit a functional xylose metabolic pathway in Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Activities and/or regulatory properties of native S. cerevisiae gene products can subsequently be optimised via evolutionary engineering. These results provide a gateway towards commercially viable ethanol production from xylose with S. cerevisiae.