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Fuel ethanol production from lignocellulose: a challenge for metabolic engineering and process integration


With industrial development growing rapidly, there is a need for environmentally sustainable energy sources. Bioethanol (ethanol from biomass) is an attractive, sustainable energy source to fuel transportation. Based on the premise that fuel bioethanol can contribute to a cleaner environment and with the implementation of environmental protection laws in many countries, demand for this fuel is increasing. Efficient ethanol production processes and cheap substrates are needed. Current ethanol production processes using crops such as sugar cane and corn are well-established; however, utilization of a cheaper substrate such as lignocellulose could make bioethanol more competitive with fossil fuel. The processing and utilization of this substrate is complex, differing in many aspects from crop-based ethanol production. One important requirement is an efficient microorganism able to ferment a variety of sugars (pentoses, and hexoses) as well as to tolerate stress conditions. Through metabolic engineering, bacterial and yeast strains have been constructed which feature traits that are advantageous for ethanol production using lignocellulose sugars. After several rounds of modification/evaluation/modification, three main microbial platforms, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Zymomonas mobilis, and Escherichia coli, have emerged and they have performed well in pilot studies. While there are ongoing efforts to further enhance their properties, improvement of the fermentation process is just one of several factorsthat needs to be fully optimized and integrated to generate a competitive lignocellulose ethanol plant.