Magazine article Science News

Yeast Bred to Bear Artificial Vanilla: Scientists Co-Opt Fungi to Produce Flavor More Efficiently

Magazine article Science News

Yeast Bred to Bear Artificial Vanilla: Scientists Co-Opt Fungi to Produce Flavor More Efficiently

Article excerpt

A jug of wine, a loaf of bread and now, vanilla.

Yeast has long been pressed into service for making food and drink, and now scientists have recruited the fungus for a loftier flavor: vanillin, vanilla's dominant compound. Scientists report in the May Applied and Environmental Microbiology that they have engineered two strains of yeast to produce vanillin from glucose, a greener and cheaper route than previous methods.

"This is absolutely beautiful work," says John Rosazza, a medicinal and natural products chemist at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. There is a huge market for vanillin, Rosazza says.

Vanillin is the dominant compound of the hundreds that are found in vanilla--an extract from the seed-bearing pods, called beans, of orchids in the genus Vanilla. But real vanilla beans are precious, rare and costly. Today, less than 1 percent of the vanillin sold each year is derived from the orchids. The majority is synthesized in chemistry labs, and typically made from lignin, a constituent of wood left over from the paper-making industry, or guaiacol, which is derived from wood creosote.

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Scientists previously have used microorganisms to make vanillin, but the precursors are expensive and the process involves environmentally unfriendly chemicals, says Jorgen Hansen of Evolva Biotech's Copenhagen office. Also, vanillin itself is toxic to many microbes.

Now Hansen, Birger Lindberg Moller of the University of Copenhagen and colleagues have created a chemistry lab within two different species of yeast growing in flasks: Schizosaccharomyces pombe, also known as fission yeast, and Saccharomyces cerevisiae, baker's or brewer's yeast. …

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