Unlocking the potential of yeast Yeast has provided us with food and drink for thousands of years, and new research will enable yeast to provide valuable compounds for a sustainable society. We spoke to Dr John Morrissey and Dr Jan-Maarten Geertman about the lasting impact of EU-funded projects on yeast biotechnology Yeast has provided
humankind with food and drink for thousands of years, now new research is going to enable yeast to provide valuable compounds for a sustainable society. Yeasts are widely used in biotechnology to produce a range of valuable items, from biofuels to flavours and from insulin to anti-aging products. There is huge potential to expand this research in Europe and open up opportunities to use yeast to make more products quickly, efficiently, and sustainably. Imagine taking a sip of your favourite wine or beer, or a scoop of your favourite ice cream. Maybe you have never given much thought to why one Sauvignon Blanc tastes different to another, what separates ale from lager, or where the flavours in your ice cream originate. However, for people working in the food and beverage industries, getting the flavours just right for the consumer is critical. Products must remain consistent in quality and price in spite of weather events, climate change, seasonal availability of ingredients and many other variables. Consumers also want innovation without compromising on sustainability. Recent research, funded by the European Union (EU), is focussing on yeast biotechnology to solve some of these problems in an economically and environmentally sustainable way. This was a major goal of the YEASTCELL training network. “The research focus of YEASTCELL was two-fold. On one side there were beverage yeasts, and on the other there were yeasts for industrial biotechnology,” explains Dr John Morrissey, who coordinated the project from University College Cork. “The emphasis was on understanding the kinds of yeasts that are used for fermented beverages, namely beer, wine and cider, and also on using modern technologies to create new yeast strains for a range of industrial applications. The research outcomes from YEASTCELL have been embraced by industry and inspired two new projects funded under the EU’s
Horizon 2020 programme, YEASTDOC and CHASSY, that will lead to further innovative solutions to pressing challenges facing European companies.”
Better Beverages: New Yeasts for Beer, Wine and Cider Brewers are particularly interested in using knowledge of yeast genetics and metabolism to diversify their product ranges and offer beers with new flavours that satisfy consumer desires. The yeast used to make modern lager (Saccharomyces pastorianus) is a hybrid - the result of a natural crossing of the standard yeast used for brewing ale and baking bread, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, and a ‘wild’ yeast, Saccharomyces eubayanus. Although the two yeasts originally crossed in the 15th century, the wild parent was not identified until 2011, when S. eubayanus was found in Patagonia, Argentina. The discovery of this species has created new opportunities for the beverage industry. “It opened up the possibility of crossing these two species to make new hybrids with different traits,” outlines Dr Morrissey. Several academic partners in the project did exactly this and crossed ale yeasts with S. eubayanus to create new
yeasts for producing fermented beverages. One of the partners in the project, HEINEKEN, are very interested in the potential of these new yeasts. “We aim to better understand these hybrid yeasts. Different partners have been working to identify the traits in yeast that affect the characteristic flavours of beer,” says Dr Jan-Maarten Geertman, Manager of Product and Process Research at HEINEKEN. PhD researchers from the project worked with HEINEKEN to make beer and cider using their new yeast strains. These drinks had unique flavours and were very positively evaluated in a large-scale sensory trial. The new strains could be commercialised, and they serve as proof of principle for further strain development. Companies that produce fermented beverages are aware of the need for sustainability, especially relating to the efficiency of their processes. Indeed, several projects in YEASTCELL explored ways to encourage yeast to perform more efficiently during fermentation of either wine or beer. Wine fermentation is actually a very stressful process for yeast, where it has to deal with low availability of some nutrients at the same time as
Dr Morrissey in University College Cork, Ireland.