The molecular, vegetative animalcule

[The Leaven –  exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

Yeast is a domesticated organism that has become almost indispensable in modern society. Although unessential to the staple diet, supermarket shelves are crammed with products that require yeast fermentation. Bread, chocolate and alcohol production all involve the metabolic activity of these simple single-celled microbes. Restaurants, bars, clubs and many aspects of social behaviour revolve around yeast products.

Throughout the centuries yeast has been the focus of domestic and industrial life. While it’s fermenting ability has  been the focus of many different hypotheses and paradigm shifts. Fermentation was once thought to be the consequence of a chemical reaction by some kind of substance and not the metabolic activity of a living organism. During the Biblical era there would have been no conception that the metabolic pathway of a microscopic bug was the source of fermentation.

Yeasts are naturally abundant in the environment especially in the soil where they are transferred, by insects or other means, on to the skins of fruit and animals, including humans. The environment contains many different types of yeast, from those that cause fungal infection (Candida spp.) to others that are used in the baking industry and in wine-production (Saccharomyces spp.). Yeast belongs to the kingdom Fungi and the division Ascomycota. In recent times it has become a major player in biological research and is now one of the most studied organisms on Earth. It was the first eukaryotic organism to have a fully sequenced genome. The majority of its genes have been researched and functionally analysed and, as many of these have analogues in other multicellular organisms, it is therefore possible to study molecular processes from mammalian systems within a unicellular model eukaryote. It is also well established as a favourable alternative to animal model systems.

Large-scale experiments involving computers, robotics and new molecular techniques, such as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to amplify genes and DNA micro-arrays, that arrange hundreds of these genes onto a small grid, have generated such a large amount of data that new scientific disciplines, eg., genomics, transcriptomics,  have evolved in order to process it all into meaningful results. The simplicity of the yeast life-cycle has made it invaluable to medical and biotechnological research. Certainly, yeast has had a great impact on 21st century society that has inflicted on social behaviour and medical research. Anthropology would have evolved differently if this organism ceased to exist.


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