Lactic acid has a wide range of applications starting from its undissociated form, and its production using cell factories requires stress-tolerant microbial hosts. The interspecies hybrid yeast Zygosaccharomyces parabailii has great potential to be exploited as a novel host for lactic acid production, due to high organic acid tolerance at low pH and a fermentative metabolism with a high growth rate. Here we used mRNA sequencing (RNA-seq) to analyze Z. parabailii's transcriptional response to lactic acid added exogenously, and we explore the biological mechanisms involved in tolerance. Z. parabailii contains two homeologous copies of most genes. Under lactic acid stress, the two genes in each homeolog pair tend to diverge in expression to a significantly greater extent than under control conditions, indicating that stress tolerance is facilitated by interactions between the two gene sets in the hybrid. Lactic acid induces downregulation of genes related to cell wall and plasma membrane functions, possibly altering the rate of diffusion of lactic acid into cells. Genes related to iron transport and redox processes were upregulated, suggesting an important role for respiratory functions and oxidative stress defense. We found differences in the expression profiles of genes putatively regulated by Haa1 and Aft1/Aft2, previously described as lactic acid responsive in Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Furthermore, formate dehydrogenase (FDH) genes form a lactic acid-responsive gene family that has been specifically amplified in Z. parabailii in comparison to other closely related species. Our study provides a useful starting point for the engineering of Z. parabailii as a host for lactic acid production.
IMPORTANCE Hybrid yeasts are important in biotechnology because of their tolerance to harsh industrial conditions. The molecular mechanisms of tolerance can be studied by analyzing differential gene expression under conditions of interest and relating gene expression patterns to protein functions. However, hybrid organisms present a challenge to the standard use of mRNA sequencing (RNA-seq) to study transcriptional responses to stress, because their genomes contain two similar copies of almost every gene. Here we used stringent mapping methods and a high-quality genome sequence to study the transcriptional response to lactic acid stress in Zygosaccharomyces parabailii ATCC 60483, a natural interspecies hybrid yeast that contains two complete subgenomes that are approximately 7% divergent in sequence. Beyond the insights we gained into lactic acid tolerance in this study, the methods we developed will be broadly applicable to other yeast hybrid strains.