Yeast and mice; biochemistry research seeks new biofuel

May 4, 2015

Evan Musick
emusick@uccs.edu

Buffalo gourds, mice and yeast could end up fueling small communities.

Wendy Haggren, senior instructor of chemistry and biochemistry, and Morgan Pinto, graduate chemistry student, are working on a special yeast that seeks to turn starch in buffalo gourd roots into usable ethanol.

“The idea is to genetically engineer yeast to be very, very efficient at breaking down starch so that we can take advantage of all the starch in this root,” Haggren said.

The project began in the mid ‘80s with UCCS biochemist James Matoon. He sought to transport enzymes found in mice DNA to certain kinds of yeast in order to break down starch.

Matoon took his research to Coors Brewing Company in an effort to make the production of beer more efficient. He was met with disgust, and Haggren recalled Coors’ response.

“‘Nobody’s going to drink beer made from rat spit,’” she said.

But the enzymes came from the DNA of a mouse, and not the saliva of a rat, she said.

Haggren and Pinto turned to another technique.

When malted barley, yeast and sugar come together through fermentation it produces carbon dioxide and ethanol. Their goal is to use the ethanol.

Ethanol is currently used as an alternative fuel, commonly known as E-85, which comes from starchy sources such as corn. Haggren said this has its own implications.

“It uses acreage. Companies that produce ethanol on a large scale are using acreage to produce this,” she said.

Haggren recalled how Matoon sought to address this issue.

“‘What is a starch source that would not be a typical food crop?’ And he came up with the buffalo gourd,” she said.

Buffalo gourds have been used by Native Americans for centuries. They grow well in arid climates such as Colorado and uses range from medicines to soaps.

For Haggren, it’s the starch in the root that is desired.

She intends to help smaller communities with her research. Her goal is to teach them how to supply their equipment with just enough ethanol to run machinery.

Pinto explained that he is currently attempting to cause the yeast to maintain the genetic information from mice, so when it grows it retains its ability to break down the starch in a way they want it to.

This will help the two look at how the yeast can be transported anywhere in the world.

“And this is really important, because if you think about yeast, you know how you buy it in the grocery store, right down in a little package, you can mail it anywhere,” Haggren said.

“I really love the idea to be able to dry down yeast, and sending it to an underdeveloped region, where they can make their own fuel,” Pinto said.

Those that would want to extract the ethanol would have to utilize basic home brew and distillery supplies.

“Basically, it’s like making moonshine. We call it ‘rootbeer,’” Haggren said.

The distilling process gets tricky though.

“That’s where it gets interesting, because that [ethanol] is actually taxed, and there are legal issues with the distilling, including here on campus,” she said.

Because of this, Haggren said they will have to get permission to distill once the project gets further. She is confident that getting approval will be easy.

In the future, Haggren would like to see a collaboration between colleges in the university to create a vehicle that would run on ethanol produced by the university.