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Friday, July 12, 2013

Synthetic Yeast on the Horizon: Mary Shelley Would Be Proud

The scientist builds the creature from a boneyard of parts, removing from it the frailties of natural life, finally breathing into it the flicker of life.  Nope, not Frankenstein's monster, but Saccharomyces cerevisiae--beer yeast.
The international project adds to work to create the first ever synthetic life form, by building a bacterium genome from scratch.
It will be the first time a genome has been built from scratch for a eukaryotic organism, the branch of the evolutionary tree that includes plants and animals. 
The notion is to make it more resistant to its own waste (ie, alcohol), presumably to aid industrial breweries in things like ever better high gravity brewing. 
"Clearly there are strains of yeast that are highly resistant to alcohol, but they all die off as the alcohol gets higher, so making more alcohol resistant strains will be very useful for that industry in terms of cost value," [said Professor Paul Freemont, from the centre for synthetic biology and innovation at Imperial College London]
It will inevitably be hugely controversial.  Who's going to want to drink Frankenstein beer?  But my sense is that the only real commercial purpose in trying this is efficient beer-making, which means it will be a part of an industrial process to create inoffensive mass-market lagers.  I suppose there could be super-high-alcohol beers in the offing, too, but they're a novelty product at best. 

Good, wholesome beer is a product of particular fermentation conditions, including a diverse array of yeast strains.  If you like IPAs or saisons, I think there's no reason to fear.


  1. This is technology which could save the world (or end it). Potentially more powerful than nuclear fusion, IMO.
    Same technique has been used to induce E coli to produce insulin for several years.
    Huge capacity for good and/or evil.
    Think beyond beer here.

  2. The article is crap. They are just playing on the beer angle because it registers with people. There has been a genetically modified strain of lager yeast (it has fast maturation) around for quite a few years now and only one brewery uses or perhaps used it as the public is scared of the idea. The "human made yeast" will be used for industrial processes if anything.

  3. Do you have some evidence that the building-it-from-scratch part of the article is wrong, because that's a whole lot different than GMO yeast. (Anonymous blog commenters tend to have less credibility than the Guardian.)

  4. Anon #1 here, @ anon#2:
    I think "people" have a good reason to distrust this technology (BTW I don't trust the internet much, either, and I think recent news accounts support this distrust. I don't have a website or a google account).
    I'm afraid the belief this stuff will be limited to "industrial processes" is analogous to the (previously prevailing) belief nuclear technology could be contained.
    Hope Monsanto doesn't get into the business.

  5. Jeff, I believe the evidence is common sense. If the brewing world will not touch a strain of yeast with a minor modification done. How open will they be to a yeast that is 100% artificial?

  6. Even the big brewers don't want to touch gm yeast because of public perception. I imagine this will be of more use to ethanol producers, and some distillers. For better or worse the question of whether we will eat frankenfood has already been answered yes. A large portion of the soybean, cottonseed, canola, and corn oil used in processed foods, at restaurants, and even on store shelves comes from gm crops. Because the oils are highly-refined it's been argued that they don't need to be labelled GMO (and if you walk down your grocer aisle you'll see they are not labelled) because the modified portion is not being eaten by the consumer. That case could be made for yeast, as for many beers it is really just a "processing aid" and removed from the beer before it gets to the consumer. If the beer was made with GM yeast, it wouldn't need to be labelled as such. Not saying that I agree with that slight of hand, but those are the current labeling regulations in the US and I doubt any of the major food players will allow the legal requirements to change. At the end of the day if brewers (big and small) decide to switch to GM yeast we the consumer will have little way to know besides whistle blowing employees.