Whey permeate is a lactose-rich effluent remaining after protein extraction from milk-resulting cheese whey, an abundant dairy waste. The lactose to ethanol fermentation can complete whey valorization chain by decreasing dairy waste polluting potential, due to its nutritional load, and producing a biofuel from renewable source at the same time. Wild type and engineered microorganisms have been proposed as fermentation biocatalysts. However, they present different drawbacks (e.g., nutritional supplements requirement, high transcriptional demand of recombinant genes, precise oxygen level, and substrate inhibition) which limit the industrial attractiveness of such conversion process. In this work, we aim to engineer a new bacterial biocatalyst, specific for dairy waste fermentation.
We metabolically engineered eight Escherichia coli strains via a new expression plasmid with the pyruvate-to-ethanol conversion genes, and we carried out the selection of the best strain among the candidates, in terms of growth in permeate, lactose consumption and ethanol formation. We finally showed that the selected engineered microbe (W strain) is able to efficiently ferment permeate and concentrated permeate, without nutritional supplements, in pH-controlled bioreactor. In the conditions tested in this work, the selected biocatalyst could complete the fermentation of permeate and concentrated permeate in about 50 and 85 h on average, producing up to 17 and 40 g/l of ethanol, respectively.
To our knowledge, this is the first report showing efficient ethanol production from the lactose contained in whey permeate with engineered E. coli. The selected strain is amenable to further metabolic optimization and represents an advance towards efficient biofuel production from industrial waste stream.