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Designing yeasts to make cleaner fuels earns grad student an innovation award at COP28

December 12, 2023
A man stands at a science exhibit demonstrating his work on using synthetic yeast to make biofuels.
José Montaño López presented work from a collaborative team of Princeton and NYU Langone researchers. Using synthetic yeasts, they sped a directed evolutionary process from years to days and created a system that can produce advanced biofuels with great efficiency. Photo courtesy of Montaño López.

Genetically reprogramming synthetic yeast strains to produce advanced biofuels has won Princeton graduate student José de Jesus Montaño Lopez a top prize at Prototypes for Humanity, a research convention held last month in Dubai.

A visualization of synthetic yeast.
A bioprint visualization of the synthetic yeast used to produce advanced biofuels. Image courtesy the researchers.

The event, part of the global climate conference COP28, featured 100 inventions that address environmental and social challenges. Five projects won awards in separate categories, including the Princeton team’s category: Energy, Efficiency and Waste.

While the first artificial gene was synthesized in the early 1970s, over the past decade scientists have been able to synthesize whole chromosomes. The Princeton team started with a version of brewer’s yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, in which nearly half of the 16 chromosomes were synthetic. By integrating biosensors into these organisms, Montaño López was able to accelerate trait evolution and select strains with superior production of biofuels and other chemicals, a process that would take years in natural yeast but that takes mere days in synthetic versions.

The resulting biofuels — in this case, isobutanol — would not compete with food sources for feedstocks. And while today’s typical gas pump can only contain around 10% ethanol, isobutanol could play a larger role, replacing more gasoline and even some jet fuel. Advanced biofuels are more expensive to produce than ethanol. But the researchers believe their synthetic yeast system, if fully realized, could boost efficiency enough to drive costs down to viable levels.

The team behind this research spans both Princeton and New York University Langone Health. Montaño López presented the team’s work, advised by José Avalos, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment.

Montaño López is in his sixth year in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. He is currently a Porter Ogden Jacobus Fellow, the University’s top honor for graduate students. In 2021, he won a Walbridge Graduate Award for Environmental Research from the High Meadows Environmental Institute. And in 2018, he won Mexico’s National Youth Award, the highest honor given by the Mexican government to its young citizens. He earned his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at National Autonomous University of Mexico.

This story originally appeared on the Princeton Engineering website.