It would be melodramatic to start with, “Beer will save the world!” But the question of biomedical and bioenergy researches bring us to the tale of Saccaromyces cerevisiae, a yeast of a genus commonly used in the manufacture of bread, wine, and beer. S. cerevisiae is a species used to make lagers. Marco Werman of PRI’s The World, and geneticist Chris Todd Hittinger explain:
Marco Werman: … A lager is a clear, cold-fermented kind of beer. You have to use a specific kind of yeast to make the stuff. Lagers were first brewed in Bavaria in southern Germany back in the 15th century. Scientists have long known that the yeast involved was a hybrid, half European and half well, that was a mystery until now. Turns out the mystery yeast originated in Patagonia on the tip of South America. Chris Todd Hittinger is a genetic scientist and co-author of a study on lager yeast. It was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week. Hittinger says he and his team made the discovery while investigating different species of yeast, or Saccharomyces, around the globe.
Chris Todd Hittinger: Saccaromyces is the Latin name for the close grouping of yeasts that include the ones that make ale, and bread and wine; and those are all made by cerevisiae, Saccaromyces cerevisiae. And Saccaromyces are often found in association with oak trees and also with fruits. And it turns out that all southern beech trees, they form galls in response to infection by another fungus.
According to Hittinger, the Patagonian yeast contributing to what we now know as S. cerivisiae most likely crossed the Atlantic via trade, both in the products—including fruit, drink, and even wood—and also in the fruit flies that would have come along for the species. And it is true, something about the chronology doesn’t quite match up if we stick strictly to the detail of Werman’s introduction; that is, if we stick with Columbus and 1492. But Hittinger acknowledges, “This is where the genetic research can’t be particularly informative, but we can speculate a little bit.”
Still, though, it was not questions of beer in particular that brought Hittinger to pursue the lineage of lager yeast. Yeast plays an important role in biomedical research and bioenergy development. According to Hittinger, “most of the genome technologies have actually been worked out in half a dozen fairly simple organisms, and Saccaromyces is really one of these champion research organisms.”
So, yes, it is possible that, one day, beer will save the world. But we need not go out and drink ourselves silly to celebrate the potential of one particularly interesting yeast. Indeed, there are plenty of reasons to hoist a pint, and it would seem stupid to pound ourselves into a drunken haze to celebrate health.
Then again, we are human.
Or, as a great man once said: Drink up, dreamers; you’re running dry.