Yeast is an important ingredient in the production of various food products such as wine, beer cheese and sausage. In the past many different species of yeast were used in food production, in a process known as spontaneous fermentation, but nowadays only a small number of species are used.
In both the beer and wine industries, there is now a growing interest in making use of the variety of species of yeast. Different yeast species can give a different character to drinks and food products.
“For example, there is a great interest in producing light beer with more flavour, and we hope that new species of yeast can contribute to this”, says Professor Jure Piskur from the Department of Biology at Lund University in Sweden.
Yeast can also be useful in the creation of probiotic food products that have health benefits. There is high demand in this area from Europe’s increasingly health-conscious consumers.
Jure Piskur will coordinate the activities of the new consortium, Cornucopia, which has received EUR 3.4 million from the EU. A total of 11 partners are involved in the consortium – both universities and companies. In addition to Lund University, researchers from Denmark, Belgium, Italy, Spain, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands are also participating.
Business sector partners include the Danish brewer Carlsberg. The project will begin in January 2011 and continue for four years. Besides new facts about which yeasts may be of value to the food industry, the consortium will also run a research school that will produce a number of new researchers with expertise in the field.
Yeasts can be found everywhere in nature; on humans, animals, fruit – anywhere they have access to sugar. In total there are around 1 000 identified species in the world, but at least 10 000 new species are expected to be identified within the near future. Tens of species of yeast live on grapes alone.
As a molecular biologist, Jure Piskur has spent a long time studying yeast’s many millions of years of history. This group of organisms is very old and has therefore managed to develop a very large genetic variation between different species. It is this genetic wealth that gives such exciting potential for the food industry to explore.
“The difference in genetic make-up between different yeast species is actually larger than the difference between fish and humans”, says Jure Piskur.