Using yeast to wean us off fossil fuels

First published in the Guardian newspaper, this article discusses one way that fungi are being used to replace materials and products made using our dwindling resources of fossils fuels which are only going to continue getting more costly as fossil fuels get more costly to find and extract.

Yeasts can be engineered to produce the building blocks that are used to make paints, plastics and other polymers. The yeasts are making this material using sugar and the sugar can be from a wide range of renewable resources.

One of the most well known products of oil has been thread used to make a wide range of fabrics for clothing and many other uses. Ways are being found to engineer yeasts to make these too! When living on sugar and salt this particular yeast strain makes spider silk which can be purified and used as a very fine thread.

Unlike the petrochemical industry the processes involved are much less toxic and the harmless byproducts i.e. yeast make excellent animal feed or fertilizers. The fabrics and polymers are biodegradable too so will not pollute our environment as plastics currently do.

What is the catch? It isn’t cost as these materials are cheaper to make than using oil at its current price. There could be problems if production is ramped up as the availability of the sugar needed to feed the yeasts requires large amounts of land to be used to grow the plants that provide the sugar. Land is also needed to provide food for us to eat and it isn’t difficult to see a clash of land use developing and prices for the use of that land increasing – forcing up the cost of food and fabric production alike.

Land is also under demand to generate renewable energy and the issues concerned (some of which are similar to those raised by this article) are discussed here

Original Article

Editor-in-Chief , National Aspergillosis Centre
Editor-in-Chief, Research Associate for the National Aspergillosis Centre and PPI Lead for Respiratory Section of the Manchester Biomedical Research Centre