Background: Acetic acid is a byproduct of Saccharomyces cerevisiae alcoholic fermentation. Together with high concentrations of ethanol and other toxic metabolites, acetic acid may contribute to fermentation arrest and reduced ethanol productivity. This weak acid is also a present in lignocellulosic hydrolysates, a highly interesting non-feedstock substrate in industrial biotechnology. Therefore, the better understanding of the molecular mechanisms underlying S. cerevisiae tolerance to acetic acid is essential for the rational selection of optimal fermentation conditions and the engineering of more robust industrial strains to be used in processes in which yeast is explored as cell factory.
Results: The yeast genes conferring protection against acetic acid were identified in this study at a genome-wide scale, based on the screening of the EUROSCARF haploid mutant collection for susceptibility phenotypes to this weak acid (concentrations in the range 70-110 mM, at pH 4.5). Approximately 650 determinants of tolerance to acetic acid were identified. Clustering of these acetic acid-resistance genes based on their biological function indicated an enrichment of genes involved in transcription, internal pH homeostasis, carbohydrate metabolism, cell wall assembly, biogenesis of mitochondria, ribosome and vacuole, and in the sensing, signalling and uptake of various nutrients in particular iron, potassium, glucose and amino acids. A correlation between increased resistance to acetic acid and the level of potassium in the growth medium was found. The activation of the Snf1p signalling pathway, involved in yeast response to glucose starvation, is demonstrated to occur in response to acetic acid stress but no evidence was obtained supporting the acetic acid-induced inhibition of glucose uptake.
Conclusions: Approximately 490 of the 650 determinants of tolerance to acetic acid identified in this work are implicated, for the first time, in tolerance to this weak acid. These are novel candidate genes for genetic engineering to obtain more robust yeast strains against acetic acid toxicity. Among these genes there are number of transcription factors that are documented regulators of a large percentage of the genes found to exert protection against acetic acid thus being considered interesting targets for subsequent genetic engineering. The increase of potassium concentration in the growth medium was found to improve the expression of maximal tolerance to acetic acid, consistent with the idea that the adequate manipulation of nutrient concentration of industrial growth medium can be an interesting strategy to surpass the deleterious effects of this weak acid in yeast cells.