Background In spite of the substantial metabolic engineering effort previously devoted to the development of Saccharomyces cerevisiae strains capable of fermenting both the hexose and pentose sugars present in lignocellulose hydrolysates, the productivity of reported strains for conversion of the naturally most abundant pentose, xylose, is still a major issue of process efficiency. Protein engineering for targeted alteration of the nicotinamide cofactor specificity of enzymes catalyzing the first steps in the metabolic pathway for xylose was a successful approach of reducing xylitol by-product formation and improving ethanol yield from xylose. The previously reported yeast strain BP10001, which expresses heterologous xylose reductase from Candida tenuis in mutated (NADH-preferring) form, stands for a series of other yeast strains designed with similar rational. Using 20 g/L xylose as sole source of carbon, BP10001 displayed a low specific uptake rate qxylose (g xylose/g dry cell weight/h) of 0.08. The study presented herein was performed with the aim of analysing (external) factors that limit qxylose of BP10001 under xylose-only and mixed glucose-xylose substrate conditions. We also carried out a comprehensive investigation on the currently unclear role of coenzyme utilization, NADPH compared to NADH, for xylose reduction during co-fermentation of glucose and xylose. Results BP10001 and BP000, expressing C. tenuis xylose reductase in NADPH-preferring wild-type form, were used. Glucose and xylose (each at 10 g/L) were converted sequentially, the corresponding qsubstrate values being similar for each strain (glucose: 3.0; xylose: 0.05). The distribution of fermentation products from glucose was identical for both strains whereas when using xylose, BP10001 showed enhanced ethanol yield (BP10001 0.30 g/g; BP000 0.23 g/g) and decreased yields of xylitol (BP10001 0.26 g/g; BP000 0.36 g/g) and glycerol (BP10001 0.023 g/g; BP000 0.072 g/g) as compared to BP000. Increase in xylose concentration from 10 to 50 g/L resulted in acceleration of substrate uptake by BP10001 (0.05 - 0.14 g/g CDW/h) and reduction of the xylitol yield (0.28 g/g - 0.15 g/g). In mixed substrate batches, xylose was taken up at low glucose concentrations (< 4 g/L) and up to fivefold enhanced xylose uptake rate was found towards glucose depletion. A fed-batch process designed to maintain a "stimulating" level of glucose throughout the course of xylose conversion provided a qxylose that had an initial value of 0.30 ± 0.04 g/g CDW/h and decreased gradually with time. It gave product yields of 0.38 g ethanol/g total sugar and 0.19 g xylitol/g xylose. The effect of glucose on xylose utilization appears to result from the enhanced flux of carbon through glycolysis and the pentose phosphate pathway under low-glucose reaction conditions. Conclusions Relative improvements in the distribution of fermentation products from xylose that can be directly related to a change in the coenzyme preference of xylose reductase from NADPH in BP000 to NADH in BP10001 increase in response to an increase in the initial concentration of the pentose substrate from 10 to 50 g/L. An inverse relationship between xylose uptake rate and xylitol yield for BP10001 implies that xylitol by-product formation is controlled not only by coenzyme regeneration during two-step oxidoreductive conversion of xylose into xylulose. Although xylose is not detectably utilized at glucose concentrations greater than 4 g/L, the presence of a low residual glucose concentration (< 2 g/L) promotes the uptake of xylose and its conversion into ethanol with only moderate xylitol by-product formation. A fed-batch reaction that maintains glucose in the useful concentration range and provides a constant qglucose may be useful for optimizing qxylose in processes designed for co-fermentation of glucose and xylose.