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Is yeast the new wonder product?

20 Apr 2017
Picture L-R: Noemi Montini, Dr John Morrissey, Javier Varela and Valentina Sforza, all part of the UCC team working on CHASSY

UCC is leading an EU project to develop techniques and platforms to replace oil and contribute to greener industry while bridging the gap between academic and commercial research. 

Dr John Morrissey, the coordinator of this Europe-wide research project described this as ‘going forward to the past’. He envisions a future where all of our products will be developed efficiently from natural renewable sources.

UCC is co-ordinating the work of a group of universities and companies in using cutting edge biotechnology to develop new strains of yeast that will work as mini- factories to produce commercially valuable compounds. This joint project will result in safe, renewable sources for compounds that could be used in industries as diverse as pharmaceuticals, nutritional supplements, biofuels, food and beverage flavourings, and cosmetics.

“We are already familiar with this process, but rarely consider the biochemistry behind it,” says Morrissey.  “We know that beer is fermented. In this process yeast uses takes in sugar and converts it to alcohol and carbon dioxide.”

“Few people realise, but yeast is the unsung hero when it comes to the production of many ground-breaking products, not just alcohol. Yeast is the powerhouse behind key ingredients in many widely available products such as food flavourings, Resvertrol, an anti-aging compound, the malaria drug Artemisin, bioethanol, and bioplastics. There is great potential for using yeast as a cell-sized factory to produce molecules to replace petrochemicals.”

Cork-based microbiologists will build on traditional biotechnology to exploit better the powerful abilities of yeast to produce valuable compounds. They will join forces with scientists in Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, The Netherlands and France, and three industry experts to speed up the production process. They will also broaden the application of the resulting compounds. The involvement of companies ensures that the research moves from laboratories to industrial proof of concept and commercially viable products.

Scientifically, this also bridges a gap between mathematical modelling, which tells researchers what changes need to be made to existing yeast cells, and synthetic biology, which provides the tools to make the changes. “This blend of maths and biology is evidence for the importance of a broad education for young people,” says Morrissey.

“Society is often sceptical of synthetic biology and gene manipulation, but this is a great example of synthetic biology benefitting society in an entirely safe way. Interestingly, brewer’s yeast is in fact a hybrid strain that contains DNA from two parent species which combined naturally,” he says.

This industry-relevant research collaboration has been funded by the EU to the tune of €6.3 million. It is the first such biotechnology project to be coordinated from Ireland. While there will be a small number of jobs and opportunities created during the four-year lifetime of the project, the aim is to advance a bio-based economy across Europe and to ensure that European industries within this sector remain competitive and cutting edge.

The EU’s Horizon 2020 funding programme is extremely competitive. This project ranked 3rd out of 80 competing proposals, of which five were eventually funded. Dr Sergio Fernandez-Ceballos of Enterprise Ireland says this project is ‘…an example of how biotechnology can achieve spectacular progress as an enabling technology to drive long-term growth and jobs across various economic sectors.’

The project began last December and will run for four years.

Read more in The Irish Times

School of Microbiology

Scoil na Micribhitheolaíochta

Microbiology Office, Room FSB452, 4th Floor Food Science & Technology Building, University College Cork, Cork T12 Y337