…are women under represented in the history of yeast research because they don’t drink enough beer?

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

Now, in the 21st cent, there are about 30 yeast factories in the European Union consuming about a million tons of cane molasses per annum. European yeast production alone generates an annual turnover of 800 million Euros. Until the turn of the 19th century yeast was supplied in a liquid form very similar to that found at the bottom of beer barrels. Perhaps, in a similar way to  how bread was made in early Egyptian civilisation from fermenting beer. Pliny the Elder noted in the first century BC that Gallic and Iberian bread was particularly light because it had been made with froth from the top of beer.

There are now several forms of yeast, compressed, crumbled and active/instant dried and genetically modified. The task of baking and brewing in earlier civilisations would have been difficult without the knowledge of sterilisation and pasteurisation. In ancient times, leaven or sourdough would have been left to rise in considerably unsterile conditions in a warm temperature. This environment would have been optimal not only for yeast but for all kinds of microbial growth including those that were pathogenic to humans. It is not surprising that leaven was associated with impurity and corruption. Excessive contamination would have certainly contributed to disease.

The desired characteristics of the yeast strain used in brewing and baking are different although they use the same species Saccharomyces cervisiae, which is also known as bakers or brewers yeast. Brewing yeast needs to have an agreeable flavour and an ability to flocculate so that the wort can settle quickly to achieve clear beer. In order to achieve these characteristics yeast are selected through generations, so that a specific yeast strain produces a desired flavour. In Darwinian terms this would be known  as directional selection.  So the variety of yeast varies with a particular industrial use. For instance, pizza dough is made with reduced power dry active yeast. Its slow fermentation allows the pizza to be shaped with reduced shrinkage after baking. Most commonly yeast for the baking industry is supplied as a compressed block because this form has a longer shelf life. Just 2.5 grams of this yeast in 100g of flour divides until it reaches a population size of 25 billion yeast cells.

Package of compressed yeast. Image by Hellahulla.

There is no question that yeast has transformed the structure of modern culture. In the food industry it provides baked goods, yeast extracts and alcoholic beverages. In scientific research it is a major model organism used mainly in molecular biology to discover information about the mechanisms of cellular processes. In fact, early in the 20th century, RNA was called yeast nucleic acid because it was first discovered in yeast.

Disappointingly, no women have been attributed to any of the early scientific discoveries associated with yeast. OK, they were less likely to encounter  Leeuwenhoek’s animalcule-containing sperm or beer during their daily routines but the reasons seem more likely to be associated with the status of women within religion.  As a consequence, they are largely excluded from early investigations were scientific endeavour was mainly to reveal the complexity of God’s creation. These investigations seem to be exclusively undertaken by men. Within the Bible it is clear that women were preferred to have a more subordinate role as revealed in a letter from Paul the Apostle to Timothy [Tim (1) 2, 11-15]:

Women should learn in silence and all humility. I do not allow them to teach or have authority over men; they must keep quiet. For Adam was created first, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived; it was the women who was deceived and broke God’s law.

In subsequent chapters, I will be addressing the portrayal of women in the progress of religion and science.

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