Research • Educate • Connect
Towards a sustainable bioeconomy

Research • Educate • Connect
Towards a sustainable bioeconomy
SEED FUND Project UstiLyse

Improving plant biomass conversion by Ustilago maydis for sustainable production of platform chemicals


The central aim of a developing bioeconomy is the switch to a bio-based, sustainable production of chemicals and biofuels using renewable resources such as plant biomass. For a socially acceptable bioeconomy, this biomass must not compete with human food sources. Hence, the focus has shifted to the use of lignocellulosic plant parts. The most prominent example is the conversion of plant biomass such as wood, corn stover or wheat straw by Saccharomyces cerevisiae for the production of so-called cellulosic ethanol. Here, the efficient and economically viable process is constricted by the necessity of adding enzymes for the degradation of the polymeric biomass, which can account for 20-40% of the total production cost. In order to counteract this prohibiting cost factor, the UstiLyse project focused on exploiting the enzymatic equipment of the plant-pathogenic basidiomycete Ustilago maydis. This fungus has the innate ability to degrade major components of lignocellulosic (non-food) biomass encoded in its genome. In addition, it naturally produces itaconic acid, a valuable biochemical for the production of bio-based polymers, chemicals and fuels. In theory, this could reduce the cost of biotechnological production of chemicals from non-edible plant materials, but in practice the plant-degrading enzymes are not active under the foreseen industrial conditions.

Hence, in this project we activated the intrinsic enzymatic capacity of U. maydis for efficient degradation of plant biomass and subsequent production of valuable chemicals, such as itaconic acid. To this end we genetically modified the organism to artificially induce the expression of distinct intrinsic biomass-degrading enzymes under industrially relevant conditions. The modified organisms were evaluated for their ability to produce itaconic acid from components of lignocellulose such as cellulose or hemicellulose.

Participating Core Groups

Dr.  Nick Wierckx,
Insitute of Applied Microbiology, RWTH Aachen University
Worringer Weg 1
52074 Aachen
phone: +49 (0) 24 180 26649

Dr. Kerstin Schipper, 
Prof. Michael Feldbrügge, Institute of Microbiology,Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf
Dr. Nick Wierckx, Prof. Lars M. Blank, Institute of Applied Microbiology, RWTH Aachen University

Project duration

1.1.2014 – 31.12.2014


UstiLyse is part of the NRW-Strategieprojekt BioSC and thus funded by the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Research of the German State of North Rhine-Westphalia.


Geiser, E, Reindl, M, Blank, LM, Feldbrugge, M, Wierckx, N and Schipper, K (2016). Activating intrinsic carbohydrate-active enzymes of the smut fungus ustilago maydis for the degradation of plant cell wall components. Appl Environ Microbiol 82(17): 5174-5185.