Understanding Yeast Domestication: Q&A with Troels Prahl

A study on the genetics of brewers yeast was published in September 2016 via the scientific journal Cell. Thanks to a large collaborative group, the study turned out to be the largest one of its kind and White Labs was excited to be a part of the research. To help you understand the findings and how it pertains to the brewing community, we asked White Labs Head of Research and Development Troels Prahl—one of the study’s authors—to give us a summary of the highlights. 

You can read the full study here, and check out this article in the Washington Post that also reports on the findings.

How long were you working on this project?

In 2012 White Labs began forming a collaborative group to work on this study, which included San Diego-based biotech companies Synthetic Genomics and Illumina as core partners. A year later we teamed up with a team of Belgian scientists from VIB.

How did we come to partner with VIB on this project?

I was giving a presentation at the World Brewing Congress in 2013 on the genetics of brewers yeast. During that event, I found out Dr. Kevin Verstrepen from VIB also attended and presented on a similar topic. Rather than work on research as competing forces, we decided to make this study a largely collaborative project with the help of several other San Diego- and Belgium-based researchers. In the end, we’re very proud to say these findings came to fruition by a group of people who share a mutual love for beer and science!

Sum it up for us. Can you offer a brief summary on the findings? What are the key conclusions?

We found evidence to prove there are two groups (or clades) of Saccharomyces cerevisiae strains used for commercial brewing and that one of these groups has been heavily domesticated (think: trained) by brewers to specifically work in a brewing environment. Our findings showed yeast domestication is something that has been occurring since the 16th century, even well before brewers understood that yeast existed. For a company like White Labs, this research gives us a new road map to follow when we are pairing strains with new beers or specific conditions. Ultimately, we’ll now have a more targeted approach to studying yeast strains and further refining fermented products.

Why did we start this project? How did everything come to fruition?

Brewing scientists would agree that understanding the genetic code of brewers yeast and comparing data on how these microbes perform in fermentation is extremely interesting and important. The research team at White Labs was very lucky to meet and form a team with several local San Diego scientists that were both homebrewers and beer enthusiats. Plus, we were excited to work with the industry leader in next generation genomic sequencing—Illumina. Thanks to Illumina's technology, we pulled an incredible amount of genetic data that was compared with the yeast properties from our internal strain characterization and experiences from handling the strains daily. By having Synthetic Genomics also involved with the project, they were able to provide a platform for us to house and explore all the data. At this point, we realized we were on to something as there began to be groundbreaking correlations between the genomic data and the performance traits of yeast strains used for beer fermentation.   

When the research was started in 2012, what was the team hoping to understand from all the information?

We wanted to better understand the differences in yeast strains and how each of its performances varies. The findings will help brewers navigate through all of the available yeasts in the world and make sure they use the best option for a specific beer style. We’re thrilled with the outcome, since this data has opened the doors to a lifetime of analysis that we can revisit whenever a relevant problem or idea arises.

How does this information specifically pertain to White Labs and its commitment to being the best yeast company in the world?

As one of the scientific leaders in the brewing industry, White Labs was proud to contribute to this work and help advance research in a field we love so dearly—the art of fermentation! Each day we build an important bridge between science and the brewers that use these wonderful microbes for their beers. White Labs is here to digest and make sense of the data, while also help brewers apply the knowledge.

How will the brewing industry benefit from a study like this?

All brewers are impacted by these advancements in some form, regardless if they are purchasing a yeast culture from White Labs and using it without any deeper scientific analysis or choosing to “geek out” on a higher level. Essentially, the yeast that's available and the way it is produced will be positively influenced when a yeast producer is willing to gain more knowledge and work toward being an expert in their trade. I say that we attempt to be like a librarian, who has read all the books and is prepared with a wealth of information to share.

What’s next? Is there follow up to these findings? Will further research be done on the subject?

This is only the beginning. We will continue to explore and encourage the brewing science community to also indulge in the data. Whenever there is a new project that investigates an existing problem, the findings become a great resource for future research. We hope this study attracts others to follow suit and further explore the art of fermentation! 

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