Domesticated tipple

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CATTLE ranchers know that if they want to increase their yields it is best to breed their largest cows with their biggest bulls. The same idea works when trying to improve other livestock, crops and pets. Although less well known, microorganisms can also be bred selectively. Given that yeasts have a long history of being used to ferment food and drink, archaeologists have argued for years that early craftsmen may have selectively bred yeast strains without even realising it.

Now there is evidence to support this idea. Steven Maere of the University of Ghent and Kevin Verstrepen of the University of Leuven, both in Belgium, and their colleagues have been studying the genomes of culinary yeast species. As they report in Cell this week, the researchers have found evidence that people started domesticating yeast strains, particularly those used in beer, some 500 years ago.

Today’s bakers, vintners and brewers have intimate knowledge of yeasts and choose strains that improve their products and grant specific flavours. But until the work of Louis Pasteur in the mid-19th century nobody knew that microorganisms existed. However, a process called…Continue reading
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