Many years have passed since the first genetically modified Saccharomyces cerevisiae
strains capable of fermenting xylose were obtained with the promise of an environmentally sustainable solution for the conversion of the abundant lignocellulosic biomass to ethanol. Several challenges emerged from these first experiences, most of them related to solving redox imbalances, discovering new pathways for xylose utilization, modulation of the expression of genes of the non-oxidative pentose phosphate pathway, and reduction of xylitol formation. Strategies on evolutionary engineering were used to improve fermentation kinetics, but the resulting strains were still far from industrial application. Lignocellulosic hydrolysates proved to have different inhibitors derived from lignin and sugar degradation, along with significant amounts of acetic acid, intrinsically related with biomass deconstruction. This, associated with pH, temperature, high ethanol, and other stress fluctuations presented on large scale fermentations led the search for yeasts with more robust backgrounds, like industrial strains, as engineering targets. Some promising yeasts were obtained both from studies of stress tolerance genes and adaptation on hydrolysates. Since fermentation times on mixed-substrate hydrolysates were still not cost-effective, the more selective search for new or engineered sugar transporters for xylose are still the focus of many recent studies. These challenges, as well as under-appreciated process strategies, will be discussed in this review.
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