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Can Scientists Evolve the Next Great Beer?

Inside their fascinating plan to speed up the evolution of yeast and find new flavors.

© KATERYNA KON/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY - Getty Images   Scientists want to naturally speed up the evolution of yeast to find the next generation of beer flavors. Here's how they'll do it.

By David Grossman, Popular Mechanics

  • Fact: Beer is one of the best scientific creations of all time, right up there with fire and the wheel.
  • Scientists at the European Union want to naturally speed up the evolution of yeast in order to find the next generation of flavors.
  • They're combining their techniques with CRISPR, trying to balance genetic research with natural growth.

Few technologies have endured as long as alcohol. The process of fermenting beverages dates as far back as the Neolithic area, with documented examples found in prehistoric China going back to 500 BC. Now, scientists working with the European Union want to create the next generation of beer by quickening the evolutionary process of yeast.

Yeast, which is a form of fungus, is crucial to the creation of alcohol. Yeast contains substances known as enzymes. When glucose, a simple sugar, is introduced to these enzymes, it starts breaking down in a process called glycolysis. 

"All kinds of fermentation beverages start out with just some sugar solution," Ursula Bond, a molecular biologist at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, told Horizon, an official magazine of the European Union. "The yeast converts those sugars into alcohol."

As any enthusiast would tell you, yeast doesn't just make beer happen. It's also responsible for its many varieties of flavors. 

"There is always a desire for new varieties. That's why the craft beer industry has become so popular," says Bond, who coordinates Aromagenesis, a project looking at yeast genes to extract even more flavors for beer and wine. "The best way to do that is by natural selection."

Aromagenesis's goal is to accelerate that natural process. "We want to introduce mutations naturally into yeast and we can do that by stressing and heating cells," Bond says. "Then we let them adapt to certain conditions to see which ones survive the best."

How does one quicken the lengthy process of evolution? The Aromangenesis project uses two techniques. One of them is known as thermal stress adaptive evolution, and the other is the genetic editing technique, CRISPR.

In thermal stress adaptive evolution, Bond's team looks at yeasts with attractive flavor profiles and puts them under heat stress. Normally, heat stress is horrible for a plant (or a person), as hot temperatures under a consistent amount of time can ruin a crop. But the Aromangenesis team uses heat stress to recreate the tough, Darwinian conditions of natural selection. By recreating the stress yeast undergoes during fermentation, the team also makes sure its discoveries could withstand commercialization.

"The approach is to try do things naturally rather than going down the route of genetic modification, which is not acceptable at the moment to the consumer," Bond says.

CRISPR techniques help the team deconstruct the flavor profiles within the yeast, and help build a roadmap to more efficient evolutions. The scientists hope that between the two, they can present an accelerated natural process to a public at times skeptical of genetically modified food and drink.

Of course, the process of beermaking isn't limited to scientists. Anybody with time and the right amount of space can start growing their own hops.

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Technology News: Can Scientists Evolve the Next Great Beer?
Can Scientists Evolve the Next Great Beer?
Inside their fascinating plan to speed up the evolution of yeast and find new flavors.
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