Background: Softwoods are the dominant source of lignocellulosic biomass in the northern hemisphere, and have been investigated worldwide as a renewable substrate for cellulosic ethanol production. One challenge to using softwoods, which is particularly acute with pine, is that the pretreatment process produces inhibitory compounds detrimental to the growth and metabolic activity of fermenting organisms. To overcome the challenge of bioconversion in the presence of inhibitory compounds, especially at high solids loading, a strain of Saccharomyces
cerevisiae was subjected to evolutionary engineering and adaptation for fermentation of pretreated pine wood (Pinus taeda).
Results: An industrial strain of Saccharomyces, XR122N, was evolved using pretreated pine; the resulting daughter strain, AJP50, produced ethanol much more rapidly than its parent in fermentations of pretreated pine. Adaptation, by preculturing of the industrial yeast XR122N and the evolved strains in 7% dry weight per volume (w/v) pretreated pine solids prior to inoculation into higher solids concentrations, improved fermentation performance of all strains compared with direct inoculation into high solids. Growth comparisons between XR122N and AJP50 in
model hydrolysate media containing inhibitory compounds found in pretreated biomass showed that AJP50 exited lag phase faster under all conditions tested. This was due, in part, to the ability of AJP50 to rapidly convert furfural and hydroxymethylfurfural to their less toxic alcohol derivatives, and to recover from reactive oxygen species damage more quickly than XR122N. Under industrially relevant conditions of 17.5% w/v pretreated pine solids loading, additional evolutionary engineering was required to decrease the pronounced lag phase. Using a combination of adaptation by inoculation first into a solids loading of 7% w/v for 24 hours, followed by a 10% v/v inoculum (approximately equivalent to 1 g/L dry cell weight) into 17.5% w/v solids, the final strain (AJP50)
produced ethanol at more than 80% of the maximum theoretical yield after 72 hours of fermentation, and reached more than 90% of the maximum theoretical yield after 120 hours of fermentation.
Conclusions: Our results show that fermentation of pretreated pine containing liquid and solids, including any inhibitory compounds generated during pretreatment, is possible at higher solids loadings than those previously reported in the literature. Using our evolved strain, efficient fermentation with reduced inoculum sizes and shortened process times was possible, thereby improving the overall economic viability of a woody biomass-toethanol conversion process.