ABSTRACT: BACKGROUND: Pretreatment of biomass for lignocellulosic ethanol production generates compounds that can inhibit microbial metabolism. The furan aldehydes hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) and furfural have received increasing attention recently. In the present study, the effects of HMF and furfural on redox metabolism, energy metabolism and gene expression were investigated in anaerobic chemostats where the inhibitors were added to the feed-medium. RESULTS: By cultivating the xylose-utilizing Saccharomyces cerevisiae strain VTT C-10883 in the presence of HMF and furfural, it was found that the intracellular concentrations of the redox co-factors and the catabolic and anabolic reduction charges were significantly lower in the presence of furan aldehydes than in cultivations without inhibitors. The catabolic reduction charge decreased from 0.13(+/-0.005) to 0.08(+/-0.002) and the anabolic reduction charge decreased from 0.46(+/-0.11) to 0.27(+/-0.02) when HMF and furfural were present. The intracellular ATP concentration was lower when inhibitors were added, but resulted only in a modest decrease in the energy charge from 0.87(+/-0.002) to 0.85(+/-0.004) compared to the control. Transcriptome profiling followed by MIPS functional enrichment analysis of up-regulated genes revealed that the functional group "Cell rescue, defense and virulence" was over-represented when inhibitors were present compared to control cultivations. Among these, the ATP-binding efflux pumps PDR5 and YOR1 were identified as important for inhibitor efflux and possibly a reason for the lower intracellular ATP concentration in stressed cells. It was also found that genes involved in pseudohyphal growth were among the most up-regulated when inhibitors were present in the feed-medium suggesting nitrogen starvation. Genes involved in amino acid metabolism, glyoxylate cycle, electron transport and amino acid transport were enriched in the down-regulated gene set in response to HMF and furfural. It was hypothesized that the HMF and furfural-induced NADPH drainage could influence ammonia assimilation and thereby give rise to the nitrogen starvation response in the form of pseudohyphal growth and down-regulation of amino acid synthesis. CONCLUSIONS: The redox metabolism was severely affected by HMF and furfural while the effects on energy metabolism were less evident, suggesting that engineering of the redox system represents a possible strategy to develop more robust strains for bioethanol production.
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