The current world demand for bioethanol is increasing as a consequence of low fossil fuel availability and a growing number of ethanol/gasoline flex-fuel cars. In addition, countries in several parts of the world have agreed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and the use of ethanol as a fuel (which produces fewer pollutants than petroleum products) has been considered to be a good alternative to petroleum products. The ethanol that is produced in Brazil from the first-generation process is optimized and can be accomplished at low cost. However, because of the large volume of ethanol that is produced and traded each year, any small improvement in the process could represent a savings of billions dollars. Several Brazilian research programs are investing in sugarcane improvement, but little attention has been given to the improvement of yeast strains that participate in the first-generation process at present. The Brazilian ethanol production process uses sugarcane as a carbon source for the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Yeast is then grown at a high cellular density and high temperatures in large-capacity open tanks with cells recycle. All of these culture conditions compel the yeast to cope with several types of stress. Among the main stressors are high temperatures and high ethanol concentrations inside the fermentation tanks during alcohol production. Moreover, the competition between the desired yeast strains, which are inoculated at the beginning of the process, with contaminants such as wild type yeasts and bacteria, requires acid treatment to successfully recycle the cells. This review is focused on describing the problems and stressors within the Brazilian ethanol production system. It also highlights some genetic modifications that can help to circumvent these difficulties in yeast.
Keywords: Brazilian ethanol production; resistance to stress; yeast improvement.