Menus Subscribe Search

Scientists Find Missing Drink, umm, Link

• August 24, 2011 • 11:44 AM

In Miller-McCune’s continuing examination of brewer’s yeast, we look at a new find in the world of lagers.

Yeast studies never grabbed the academic spotlight like more charismatic species, say, bacteria or green algae. But a new discovery is rocking this placid pantry of academe.

Microbiologists have identified the wild roots of the yeast that allows humans to brew lagers.

Lager isn’t just another word for beer (although it is the most popular commercial brew); it refers to a specific type of beer brewed at lower temperatures than the ales popular from the time of Amenhotep to the age of Budweiser. Lagers require a particularly hardy strain of yeast, a hybrid of the ancient strain of brewer’s yeast and some other wild strain that apparently wasn’t in the suds arsenal until brewmasters latched onto it in 15th-century Bavaria.

The search for that wild strain led to a sort of globe-spanning, half-decade-long eukaryotic treasure hunt, according to a team of eight researchers writing in the latest edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The pursuers eventually treed their quarry — literally — in the beech forests of Patagonia.

The yeast in question came from galls — outgrowths on plants cased by bugs or infections, kind of like plant pimples — found on southern beeches in the far south of Argentina. The researchers had two breaks in the case — they knew that brewer’s yeast was strongly associated with oak trees and their kin, and their lead author, Diego Libkind, works at Argentina’s Institute for Biodiversity and Environment Research. (Plus, as team member and evolutionary geneticist Chris Todd Hittinger of the University of Wisconsin-Madison told the Los Angeles Times in its fine write-up of the discovery, the locals already made a potent potable from the galls.)

“Beech galls are very rich in simple sugars,” Hittinger told his alma mater. “It’s a sugar-rich habitat that yeast seems to love.” The more or less free-ranging yeast microbes found the galls a congenial home, so when humans made the drink from the galls, they had the yeast and the sugars already in place, which are the building blocks of booze.

Folks better with history than test tubes might ask how a New World yeast found its way into an almost pre-Colombian Old World brew, but the researchers believe nascent transatlantic trade and a hardy yeast suffice for an explanation. (There’s some chatter about the stomach of a fruit fly, but let’s not go there.) And while none of the team will definitively state that their find is the ‘holy gr-ale,’ they note that the newly identified year is 99.5 percent identical to the wild strain portion of lager yeast and yet distinct from every other wild yeast with a known genome.

Last month biogeographer Rob Dunn took us down the “path of yeast resistance” by explaining how brewer’s yeast may have been the first species cultivated by humans.

Dunn explained both yeast’s co-evolution with civilization and why we might care:

“If yeast has evolved with agriculture and our spread, its genes might also be able to tell part of our story as a kind of ‘bioglyph’ rewritten with each act of yeast sex, division or mutational change.

“The answer, or at least a big clue, was revealed when scientists decided to construct an evolutionary tree for yeast based on the genes of yeasts found in different foods. When they did, they were in for a surprise. The yeasts in beer, wine, sake and other fermented drinks and foods were different, very different, from each other. Those differences were ancient. Yeast does not just colonize any old food out of the hovering ether. It evolved and diversified as civilization and agriculture have evolved and diversified. Out of a few or even just one ancestral yeast strain, many new varieties have emerged. Just as from wolves came big dogs, small dogs, furry dogs and bald dogs, from one or a few yeast strains came all of the alcoholic flavors that we hold so dear.”

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.


July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.


July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.


July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


July 28 • 11:11 AM

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.


July 28 • 10:00 AM

Hell Isn’t for Real

You may have seen pictures of the massive crater in Siberia. It unfortunately—or fortunately—does not lead to the netherworld.


July 28 • 8:00 AM

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.


July 28 • 7:45 AM

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.


July 28 • 6:00 AM

Hams Without Ends and Cats Tied to Trees: How We Create Traditions With Dubious Origins

Does it really matter if the reason for why you give money to newlyweds is based on a skewed version of a story your parents once told you?


July 28 • 4:00 AM

A Belief in ‘Oneness’ Is Equated With Pro-Environment Behavior

New research finds a link between concern for the environment and belief in the concept of universal interconnectedness.


July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



Follow us


Subscribe Now

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.