Fermentation of xylose is a fundamental requirement for the efficient production of ethanol from lignocellulosic biomass sources. Although they aggressively ferment hexoses, it has long been thought that native Saccharomyces cerevisiae strains cannot grow fermentatively or non-fermentatively on xylose. Population surveys have uncovered a few naturally occurring strains that are weakly xylose-positive, and some S. cerevisiae have been genetically engineered to ferment xylose, but no strain, either natural or engineered, has yet been reported to ferment xylose as efficiently as glucose. Here, we used a medium-throughput screen to identify Saccharomyces strains that can increase in optical density when xylose is presented as the sole carbon source. We identified 38 strains that have this xylose utilization phenotype, including strains of S. cerevisiae, other sensu stricto members, and hybrids between them. All the S. cerevisiae xylose-utilizing strains we identified are wine yeasts, and for those that could produce meiotic progeny, the xylose phenotype segregates as a single gene trait. We mapped this gene by Bulk Segregant Analysis (BSA) using tiling microarrays and high-throughput sequencing. The gene is a putative xylitol dehydrogenase, which we name XDH1, and is located in the subtelomeric region of the right end of chromosome XV in a region not present in the S288c reference genome. We further characterized the xylose phenotype by performing gene expression microarrays and by genetically dissecting the endogenous Saccharomyces xylose pathway. We have demonstrated that natural S. cerevisiae yeasts are capable of utilizing xylose as the sole carbon source, characterized the genetic basis for this trait as well as the endogenous xylose utilization pathway, and demonstrated the feasibility of BSA using high-throughput sequencing.
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