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Here Comes the Science: Yeast Shows Scientists the Origins of Complex Life on Earth

As a beer nerd, you gotta love yeast, the industrious little critters who give every beer you drink the magical spark of life.  You may know that yeast cells congregate in little clumps converting sugars into alcohol, but do you know WHY they work in teams?

Scientists at a small Massachusetts college (some place called Harvard) have just completed a study looking at what drove single-celled creatures to team up together in the ancient primordial ooze, the first step in the development of complex multi-cellular creatures on Earth (unless you think they whole thing happened in seven days, in which case stop reading this blasphemy and click here). 

The scientists whipped up a tasty sucrose solution composed of two simple sugars, glucose and fructose.  They then put single yeast cells in some vessels containing the solution and multiple yeast cells in others.

We all know that yeast cells love to eat sugar, but it turns out they really can’t do it alone.  In order to prepare the sugars for absorption through their cell walls, yeast cells make an enzyme called invertase which breaks the sugars down and makes them ready to eat.  Turns out, this is a very inefficient process, and a single yeast cell can only process 1% of the ready-to-eat food it creates.  In many cases, it’s not enough nutrition to grow and divide, so the cell winds up living in its mother’s basement until it dies from a heart attack with Cheetos-stained fingers while fighting an over-stimulating battle on World of Warcraft (or the yeast version of this evolutionary dead-end).

But when you drop a group of yeast cells in the same solution, it’s a different story.  The yeast aren’t more efficient at converting sugars as a group, but they can feed off of what their neighbors create which gives them enough nutrition to thrive.  This is where Darwin takes over, and the cells that are most efficient at feeding off of the sugars dominate and divide.  These are the over achieving little studs that make the beers we love.

If you’re interested in learning more, you can read additional info on the study here.  While the scientists at Harvard say that this has given them insights into how multi-cellular life came to be, I think the whole thing was simply an elaborate ruse to homebrew using university funds. 🙂

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Categories: Beer

Author:Jim

Craft beer nerd, frequent beer blogger and occasional home brewer.

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8 Comments on “Here Comes the Science: Yeast Shows Scientists the Origins of Complex Life on Earth”

  1. August 11, 2011 at 11:37 am #

    I love to learn and talk about trivia like this (much to my friends’ chagrin). Although the appeal of an item like this would almost certainly be lost on most of my beer-drinking buds, the following, which one of them sent me a number of year ago would likely appeal to all of them:

    Sometimes when I reflect on all the beer I drink I feel ashamed. Then
    I look into the glass and think about the workers in the brewery and
    all of their hopes and dreams. If I didn’t drink this beer, they might
    be out of work and their dreams would be shattered. I think, “It is
    better to drink this beer and let their dreams come true than be
    selfish and worry about my liver.” — Babe Ruth
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    I feel sorry for people who don’t drink. When they wake up in the
    morning, that’s as good as they’re going to feel all day. —
    Lyndon B. Johnson
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    An intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend time with
    his fools. — Ernest Hemingway
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    When I read about the evils of drinking, I gave up reading. — Paul
    Hornung
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    24 hours in a day, 24 beers in a case. Coincidence? I think not. —
    H. L. Mencken
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    When we drink, we get drunk. When we get drunk, we fall asleep. When
    we fall asleep, we commit no sin. When we commit no sin, we go to
    heaven. So, let’s all get drunk and go to heaven! — George Bernard Shaw
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. —
    Benjamin Franklin
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    Without question, the greatest invention in the history of mankind is
    beer. Oh, I grant you that the wheel was also a fine invention, but
    the wheel does not go nearly as well with pizza. — Dave Barry
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    BEER: HELPING UGLY PEOPLE HAVE SEX SINCE 3000 ! B.C.! —
    W. C. Fields
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    Remember “I”! be fore “E”, except in Budweiser. — Professor Irwin Corey
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    To some it’s a six-pack, to me it’s a “support group.” Salvation in a can!
    Leo Durocher
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    One night at Cheers, Cliff Clavin explained the “Buffalo Theory” to
    his buddy Norm: “Well ya see, Norm, it’s like this. A herd of buffalo
    can only move as fast as the slowest buffalo. And when the herd is
    hunted, it is the slowest and weakest ones at the back that are killed
    first. This natural selection is good for the herd as a whole, because
    the general speed and health of the whole group keeps improving by the
    regular killing of the weakest members. In much the same way, the
    human brain can only operate as fast as the slowest brain cells.
    Excessive intake of alcohol, as we know, kills brain cells. But
    naturally, it attacks the slowest and weakest brain cells first. In
    this way, regular consumption of beer eliminates the weaker brain
    cells, making the brain a faster and more efficient machine! That’s
    why you always feel smarter after a few beers.”

  2. August 11, 2011 at 12:21 pm #

    Funny. One of our longtime members in our beer club and avid home-brewer also happens to be a scientist at the university who actually specializes in yeast. So, when you suggest that scientists are really just looking for an excuse to brew some beer, you weren’t kidding.

    • August 11, 2011 at 12:46 pm #

      Yeah, this has beer nerd finger prints all over it!

  3. August 11, 2011 at 7:02 pm #

    Love yeast!

  4. August 12, 2011 at 10:27 am #

    “…winds up living in its mother’s basement until it dies from a heart attack with Cheetos-stained fingers while fighting an over-stimulating battle on World of Warcraft…”

    Hey, I know that guy!! And props for the beer/science geeks for proving in yet another roundabout way that beer really does equal civilization.

    • August 12, 2011 at 4:28 pm #

      For shame Evie! How could you ever doubt it!

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