Researchers at the University of Georgia have come out with a "super strain" of yeast which can efficiently ferment ethanol from pre-treated pine.
The breakthrough discovery could help biofuels replace gasoline as a transportation fuel.
"Companies are interested in producing ethanol from woody biomass such as pine, but it is a notoriously difficult material for fermentations," said Joy Doran-Peterson, associate professor of microbiology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.
"The big plus for softwoods, including pine, is that they have a lot of sugar that yeast can use.
"Yeast are currently used in ethanol production from corn or sugarcane, which are much easier materials for fermentation; our process increases the amount of ethanol that can be obtained from pine," she said.
Before the pinewood is fermented with yeast, however, it is pre-treated with heat and chemicals, which help open the wood for enzymes to break the cellulose down into sugars.
Once sugars are released, the yeast will convert them to ethanol, but compounds produced during pre-treatment tend to kill even the hardiest industrial strains of yeast, making ethanol production difficult.
Doran-Peterson, along with doctoral candidate G. Matt Hawkins, used directed evolution and adaptation of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, a species of yeast used commonly in industry for production of corn ethanol, to generate the "super" yeast".
Their research showed that the pine fermented with the new yeast could successfully withstand the toxic compounds and produce ethanol from higher concentrations of pre-treated pine than before.
The study has been published online in Biotechnology for Biofuels.