The domestication of animals, plants, and microbes has led to the creation of these foods and beverages. The domestication of plants and animals has been studied extensively, as it is believed to be one of the most important changes that humanity has experienced in recent history.
Scientists are much less knowledgeable about the domestication and evolution of microbes. As a result, the public does not appreciate the important role they play in the food and beverages we consume all year round.
As an evolutionary biologist, I study fungi. This group of microbes has domesticated many tasty products. I have been fascinated with two questions for a long time: What were the genetic changes which led to their domestication, and how did our ancestors manage to do it? How did our ancestors domesticate them?
Are you curious, too? Recent studies have shed some light on these issues, so grab a Camembert and a beer and continue reading.
This assortment of international cheeses is a tribute to the many microbes that have contributed to its creation. Umomos/Shutterstock.com
Your lager may have hybrids.
Brewer’s yeast is a domesticated product that is difficult to surpass. Brewer’s yeast is the cornerstone of the baking, winemaking, and brewing industries. It has the amazing ability to convert the sugars from plant fruits and grains. How did brewer’s yeast develop this flexibility?
Scientists have discovered new yeast species and sequenced their genomes. They know that some of the yeasts used for brewing are hybrids. That is, they are descendants of ancient matings between individuals of two different yeasts. Combinations are often similar to both parents – for example, ligers or whopping (lion-tiger).
The mighty brewer’s yeast is the cornerstone for the baking, winemaking and brewing industries. Wikipedia
Typical lager yeasts, for example, are hybrids between two closely related species. The brewer’s yeast Saccharomyces Cervisiae Saccharomyces Eubayanus. Saccharomyces eubayanus is responsible for the production of British ales and other tasty beers. However, it grows best at warmer temperatures. Saccharomyces Eubayanus, on the other hand, grows better at cold temperatures but produces compounds that taint beer’s taste. These hybrids are a combination of Saccharomyces Cerevisiae, which has good flavors, and Saccharomyces Eubayanus, which allows for growth at lower temperatures. These hybrids are perfect for brewing in Europe’s cold winters, where lagers originated.
Researchers have discovered hybrids that are the result of combining other Saccharomyces Species. It is not known whether hybridization occurs in yeasts used by humans to make fermented drinks for centuries.
In order to answer this question, two teams led by graduate students Quinn Langdon and Brigida Galone from the Universities of Ghent in Belgium and Leuven examined hundreds of yeasts used in wine and beer making. Their bottom line? Hybrids rule.
For example, a quarter (25%) of the yeasts from industrial environments are hybrids. This includes beer and wine producers.
Some hybrids can trace their origins back to as many as four different parent species. You may wonder why there is so much hybridization. These newly discovered hybrids are similar to the larger combinations but differ in their appetite and growth rate. The hybridized preferences influence the flavor profiles and how they are used in brewing.
Brewer’s yeasts are responsible for this variety of beer flavors and styles. They love to hybridize.
Mutants in your cheese
Scientists can better understand genetic changes in foods and beverages by comparing the genomes of domesticated fungi and their wild relatives. How did our ancestors domesticate these wild mushrooms? We were not there to see how it began. Scientists are trying to solve the mystery by experimenting with wild mushrooms to see if these fungi can evolve into organisms that resemble those we use today to make food.