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New EU Yeast Biotech Project


Scientists at University College Cork are leading a new European project that aims to change the way we produce fuels and plastic.   Currently, oil is the source of our fuels and plastics and is also the source for some of the ingredients in our cosmetics, nutritional supplements and other every day products. This project will contribute to the new, green “bio-based” economy in Europe.

Dr John Morrissey, School of Microbiology, UCC, and associated faculty at APC, the coordinator of this 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. In this case, that renewable source is sugar – the raw material in a miniature production line.

Yeast is the unsung hero of this futuristic production line. We are already familiar with this process of using yeast to produce sought-after compounds, but rarely consider the biochemistry behind it.   To produce beer, yeast functions as a processing plant converting sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide. Yeast is already the powerhouse behind many food flavourings, the anti-aging compound Resveratrol, the malaria drug Artemisinin, the grapefruit extract Nootkatone, insulin, bioethanol, bioplastics, and there is potential for many more industrial applications.

To better exploit the potential of yeast fermentations, Cork-based microbiologists have joined forces with scientists in Germany, Sweden, The Netherlands and France. They will apply a mixture of engineering and mathematical principles to the biology of several yeast species so that the cell metabolism creates valuable compounds (instead of alcohol and CO2). Three companies from Sweden, Germany and Switzerland will then speed up the production process so that these compounds are commercially viable. This joint project will result in safe, renewable sources for oils that will be used in cosmetics, and for nutritional health promotion products.

Designing and engineering biological systems and living organisms to improve applications for industry or biological research is known as synthetic biology. Society is often sceptical this kind of science, but this is a great example of synthetic biology benefitting society in an entirely safe way. One of the species involved, brewer’s yeast is in fact a hybrid strain that contains DNA from two parent species which combined naturally. The techniques used in this project are an extension of that natural process.

Dr Sergio Fernandez-Ceballos of Enterprise Ireland says this project is ‘…an example of how biotech can achieve spectacular progress as an enabling technology to drive long-term growth and jobs across various economic sectors.’ This research will ensure that Europe remains at the forefront of the industrial biotechnology sector, currently directly responsible for 94,000 full-time jobs in Europe and generating approximately €31 billion annually.

This research collaboration was awarded €6.3million of funding from the EU and Switzerland under the Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme. It began in December 2016 and will run for 4 years. While many Irish universities have received funding under similar programmes in the past, this is the first project of its type to be coordinated by an Irish university.

For more information, please contact:

John Morrissey, Coordinator



Twitter: @ChassyProject


Photo (left to right): front row: Dr Francesca Doonan; Noemi Montini; Valentina Sforza;

back row: Lucy Taylor; Javier Varela; Dr John Morrissey; Dr Pasha Baranov