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UW Scientists Aim to Boost Ethanol Production Efficiency

October 2, 2014
woman in lab using instrument with a bottle
UW graduate student Elizabeth Hiatt works in a laboratory in the Department of Molecular Biology, where she is conducting research with Professor Peter Thorsness to increase the efficiency of the fermentation process for biofuels production. (UW Photo)

Elizabeth Hiatt came to the University of Wyoming after graduating from Rawlins High School with an interest in science, but no clear idea of what type of career she wanted to pursue.

She’s about to graduate with a master’s degree in molecular biology -- and potentially lucrative intellectual property that could provide a significant boost to the nation’s biofuels industry.

Hiatt is one of 24 graduate students studying through the UW School of Energy Resources’ competitive graduate assistantship program, which attracts students from across the country to conduct research that benefits Wyoming’s industries and economy.

In Hiatt’s case, she wasn’t recruited from a far-away institution by UW molecular biology Professor Peter Thorsness but, rather, from her home-state university upon earning her UW bachelor’s degree. In fact, the two became acquainted because Hiatt worked as an undergraduate in Thorsness’s lab in the Department of Molecular Biology, where her interest in the field blossomed.

“One of the best things about UW is the opportunity for undergraduates to do meaningful research,” says Hiatt, who also credits her Rawlins High School biology teacher for helping spark her initial interest in science. “I’ve always been interested in science, asking the ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions in my classes. This has been a great place for me to gain the experiences I needed and to point me on a good career path.”

Hiatt’s research project -- bioengineering yeast to improve fermentation efficiency for production of ethanol and other chemicals -- has its roots in Thorsness’s career of basic research into mitochondrial function. Having worked as a consultant for the biofuels industry, the 23-year UW faculty member hypothesized that yeast -- used in the fermentation process to produce ethanol, as well as in baking and brewing -- could be genetically altered to become more efficient.

Hiatt has been experimenting with both laboratory and industrial strains of yeast to test the hypothesis. While the research won’t be complete until later this semester, results to this point are encouraging. And ethanol producers in Wyoming and Colorado are interested, Thorsness and Hiatt say.

“We think it will be possible, by tweaking the industrial yeast, to produce the same amount of ethanol with 20 percent less corn,” Thorsness says. “And this technology could be used to enhance the fermentation processes for other biofuels and chemical products as well.”

Working with UW’s Office of Research and Economic Development, Thorsness and Hiatt are pursuing patents for their yeast-enhancement process. Hiatt’s startup company, Rho Zero Fermentation, was a finalist in UW’s 2013 John P. Ellbogen $30K Entrepreneurship Competition, which awards cash prizes to student entrepreneurs who submit their business plans for new ventures that show significant business potential.

It remains to be seen whether the process being pioneered by Hiatt and Thorsness is adopted by yeast manufacturers, biofuel producers or others, but the two are optimistic. The potential impact on existing industries is particularly gratifying for Thorsness, who has made his share of significant discoveries during his career, but mostly in basic sciences.

“I’ve never made an obvious contribution to an economic or medical breakthrough,” he says. “If we were able to do that with this research, it would be a pretty cool thing.”

Hiatt, meanwhile, expects to “stay in research,” possibly in the private sector, after earning her master’s degree in December. She plans to continue asking the “how” and “why” questions that have brought her this far.

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