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Forever Rising

We depend on yeasts for products ranging from beer and biofuel to forage and pharmaceuticals. But according to Chris Todd Hittinger and his colleagues at CALS, we’ve only begun to understand and mine the possible uses of these hardworking model microbes

To begin to understand the outsized potential and sheer weirdness of yeast, it helps to consider the genetics behind one of the world’s most successful and useful microorganisms. It also helps to consider lager.

Lager, or cold-brewed beer, is made possible by the union of two distinct species of yeast. About 500 years ago, these two species, Saccharomyces eubayanus and Saccharomyces cerevisiae, joined in a Bavarian cellar. They gave us a hybrid organism that today underpins an annual global market for lager estimated at one-quarter of a trillion dollars.

“We would not have lager if there hadn’t been a union equivalent to the marriage of humans and chickens,” notes Chris Todd Hittinger PhD’07, a CALS professor of genetics and a co-discoverer of S. eubayanus, the long-sought wild species of yeast that combined with the bread- and wine-making S. cerevisiae to form the beer. “That’s just one product brewed by one interspecies hybrid.”

Yeasts, of course, are central to many things that people depend on, and the widespread domestication in antiquity of S. cerevisiae is considered pivotal to the development of human societies. Bread and wine, in addition to beer, are the obvious fruits of taming the onecelled fungi that give us life’s basics. But various strains and species of yeasts also are partly responsible for cheese, yogurt, sausage, sauerkraut, kimchi, whiskey, cider, sake, soy sauce and a host of other fermented foods and beverages.

Baker’s yeast, according to yeast biologist Michael Culbertson, an emeritus professor and former chair of UW– Madison’s Laboratory of Genetics, ranks as “one of the most important organisms in human history. Leavened bread came from yeast 5,000 years ago.”

Beyond the table, the microbes and their power to ferment have wide-ranging applications, including in agriculture for biocontrol and remediation, as well as for animal feed and fodder. They are also widely used to make industrial biochemicals such as enzymes, flavors and pigments.

What’s more, yeasts are used to degrade chemical pollutants and are employed in various stages of drug discovery and production. Human insulin, for instance, is made with yeast. By inserting the human gene responsible for producing insulin into yeast, the human variant of the hormone is pumped out in quantity, supplanting the less effective bovine form of insulin used previously.

Transforming corn and other feedstocks, such as woody plant matter and agricultural waste, to the biofuel ethanol requires yeast. Hittinger is exploring the application of yeast to that problem through the prism of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC), a Department of Energy-funded partnership between UW–Madison and Michigan State University. Hittinger leads a GLBRC “Yeast BiodesignTeam,” which is probing biofuel applications for interspecies hybrids as well as genome engineering approaches to refine biofuel production using yeasts.

“There are lots and lots of different kinds of yeasts,” explains Hittinger. “Yeasts and fungi have been around since Precambrian time—hundreds of millions of years, for certain. We encounter them every day. They’re all around us and even inside us. They inhabit every continent, including Antarctica. Yeasts fill scores of ecological niches.”

The wild lager beer parent, S. eubayanus, for example, was found after a worldwide search in the sugarrich environment of Patagonian beech trees—or, more specifically, in growths, called “galls,” bulging from them. (How S. eubayanus got to Bavaria hundreds of years ago and made the lager hybrid possible remains a mystery.) It is possible, notes Hittinger, to actually smell the S. eubayanus yeast at work, churning alcohol from the sugars in the galls themselves.

Though the merits of known yeast species for making food, medicines and useful biochemicals are numerous, there are likely many more valuable applications of existing and yet-to-bediscovered yeasts.

For Hittinger and the community of yeast biologists at UW–Madison and beyond, a critical use is in basic scientific discovery. The use of yeast as a research organism was pioneered by Louis Pasteur himself, and much of what we know about biochemical metabolism was first studied in yeasts.

Since the 1970s, the simple baker’s variety of yeast has served as a staple of biology. Because yeasts, like humans and other animals, are eukaryotes— organisms composed of cells with a complex inner architecture, including a nucleus—and because of the ease, speed and precision with which they can be studied and manipulated in the lab, they have contributed significantly to our understanding of the fundamentals of life. And because nature is parsimonious, conserving across organisms and time useful traits encoded as genes, the discoveries made using yeast can often be extended to higher animals, including humans.

“The model yeast, S. cerevisiae, has been instrumental in basic biology,” says Hittinger. “It has told us something aging. In terms of understanding basic processes, it’s a tough model system to beat. It’s a champion model organism for genetics and biochemistry.”

“It is widely unappreciated how thevast terrain of biology has been nourished by yeast,” argues Sean B. Carroll, a CALS professor of genetics and one of the world’s leading evolutionary thinkers. It was in Carroll’s lab a decade ago as a graduate student that Hittinger first turned his attention to yeast, coauthoring a series of high-profile papers that, among other things, used the yeast model to catch nature in the act of natural selection, the proof in the pudding of evolutionary science.

Now the model is about to shift into an even higher gear. The work of Hittinger and others is poised toenhance the yeast model, add many new species to the research mix, and begin to make sense of the evolutionary history of a spectacularly successful and ubiquitous organism. The advent of cheap and fast genomics—the ability to sequence and read the DNA base pairs that make up the genes and genomes of yeasts and all other living organisms—along with the tools of molecular biology and bioinformatics promise a fundamental new understanding and order for yeast biology.

“This is all about weaponry,” explains Carroll, noting that Hittinger, in addition to possessing “great benchtop savvy and skill,” has armed himself remarkably well to exploit yeast genetics through the mutually beneficial prisms of molecular biology, evolutionary biology and bioinformatics (which harnesses computers to help make sense of the bumper harvests of data). “He has a determination and resolve to get the answer to any important question— whatever it takes,” says Carroll.

The big questions on the table for Hittinger and others include ferreting out “the genetic factors that drive species diversification and generate biodiversity,” and weaving that granular understanding into the larger fabric of biology. Because the functional qualities of all the various yeast species differ in order for the microbe to thrive in the many different environments it inhabits, the genetic code that underpins their different physiological and metabolic features varies accordingly.

In short, it takes a diversity of talents to inhabit every major terrestrial and aquatic environment the world has to offer. Species that thrive in South American tree galls and species that eke out a living on human skin require different skill sets in order to cope with vastly different environments and utilize different resources. Each of those skills is determined by the organism’s genetic makeup, and as scientists discover and extract the lode of genomic data found in new species discovered in the wild, new and potentially useful genetic information and metabolic qualities will come to light.

These are big, basic biological questions. But their answers promise far more than simply satisfying scientific curiosity. Yeasts are big business. They are medically and industrially important. The secrets they give up will, without a doubt, amplify our ability to produce food, medicine and industrial biochemicals.

To lay the groundwork, Hittinger and an international collaboration of yeast biologists are setting out, with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), to map the genetic basis of metabolic diversity by sequencing the genomes of the 1,000 or so known species of yeast in the subphylum that includes Saccharomyces. Three hundred times smaller than the human genome, a typical yeast genome consists of 16 linear chromosomes and, roughly, 6,000 genes and 12 million letters of DNA.

“This is the best possible time to be a yeast biologist,” avers Hittinger. “Our collections have been vastly improved, and we can sequence genomes a hundred at a time. The important thing to know is that yeast is not just one organism or one species. There are thousands of yeasts, and they each have their own evolutionary history.”

Acquiring new species from the wild and sequencing their genomes will enable Hittinger and his colleagues to construct an accurate yeast family tree.

“If we don’t understand what’s out there and how they evolved, we’re notgoing to understand how to make use of them,” Hittinger notes. “Now, we can rip ’em open, get a peek at their genomes and see what the differences are and how they’ve changed over time.”

Thus stalking new strains and species of yeast in the wild is an essential part of the program, according to Hittinger, who routinely dispatches students, including undergraduates, to seek out new yeasts in nature. Half of all the known species of yeast have been described scientifically only within the past 15 years, meaning scientists have only a limited understanding of the world’s yeast diversity.

“Until recently, most strain collections have been paltry and biased towards domesticated strains,” says Hittinger. “If we can expand our understanding of the wild relatives, we can use them as an evolutionary model.Yeasts have a much less welldeveloped history in ecology and natural history.”

A recent yeast hunting excursion in Wisconsin by one of Hittinger’s students yielded three strains of the same S. eubayanus lager yeast parent found in tree galls in South America. Discovered near Sheboygan, the yeast has been cultured in Hittinger’s lab and samples have been provided to CALS food science professor James Steele, whose group is setting up a new comprehensive program in fermentation science and, with the help of a gift from Miller-Coors, a new pilot brewery lab in Babcock Hall. (Steele is also looking to support other fermented beverages in Wisconsin—namely, wine and cider— in both production and education. See sidebar on page 20.)

“We grew up a few hundred billion cells, gave them to Jim Steele to brew beer, and we’re eagerly awaiting the results,” says Hittinger, who explains that another focus of his lab is making interspecies hybrids, such as the lager hybrid. “Now that we’ve identified the wild species, we can make crosses in the lab to make hybrids that produce flavors people are interested in.”

In the food science realm, says Steele, yeast research is focused on the functional characteristics—fermentation qualities, sugar utilization, flavors—of a particular strain of yeast. “How does microbial physiology link to flavor in fermented beverages?” he asks.

Saccharomyces strains are the workhorse and best-known yeasts, including many of the most medically and biotechnologically important. With the $2 million award from NSF,
Hittinger and his colleagues will use the genomes to develop a robust taxonomy of important yeasts and look for the genetic footprints that give rise to yeast biodiversity, an  evolutionary history of their metabolic, ecological and pathogenic qualities. Such an understanding will elevate yeast to a new plane as a model and will undoubtedly serve as the basis of valuable new technologies.

Hittinger cautions, however, that sequencing yeast genomes is only a start: “We can very easily read gene sequences, but we don’t yet know how to interpret them fully. We will need to read those bases and make functional predictions” to extend both the knowledge of yeast biology and their potential use in industry.

“But if it weren’t for that natural diversity, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy Belgian beers,” says Hittinger, referencing the gifts conferred by different yeasts and their varied genetic underpinnings, resulting in the different flavors of ales, lagers and Belgians.

One of the central metabolic qualities of the familiar yeasts, of course, is their ability to ferment. Put simply, fermentation is a process by which cells partially oxidize or burn sugar. Among yeasts, the propensity to ferment in the presence of oxygen has evolved only in Saccharomyces species and a few others.

“To make a living using this process, you have to be a glucose hog,” says Hittinger. “But you don’t burn it all the way. You leave some energy on the table. Ethanol burns because it is unoxidized fuel.”

Different kinds of cells can perform fermentation if they become oxygenstarved Human cells, for example, ferment when starved of oxygen, causing painful muscle cramps. Given enough sugar, cancer cells can ferment, and do so to survive in oxygen-poor environments.

Indeed, Hittinger’s research on the cellular resemblance between Saccharomyces yeasts and cancer cells (for which he recently was named a Pew Biomedical Scholar) focuses on identifying which steps in yeast evolution were key to making the transition from respiratory to fermentative metabolic activity, as well as the sequence of those evolutionary events.

“Armed with that information, we should be able to shed some light on how cancer cells make that same transition over an individual’s lifetime,” says Hittinger.

Genes, Hittinger knows, hold the secrets to the functional qualities of yeast. Those microbial secrets, in turn, promise us food, fuel, pharmaceuticals— and, of course, beer. Like bread and wine, the gift of lager is no small thing. Who knows what other gifts, large and small, may lurk in the genes of these microorganisms?

Headed into the wild? If so, you could help Chris Todd Hittinger’s team identify new yeast species and strains. To learn more, visit

To watch an interview with Chris Todd Hittinger, visit

Brewing Beer-6005

Food science professor James Steele (left) and students are creating a red lager to be brewed by the Wisconsin Brewing Company. Steele and colleagues are launching a fermented foods and beverages program to take research and teaching to the next level.

“Farm to Glass” and More: Fermenting a Growth Industry

We all know Wisconsin as the land of beer and cheese. But in the not too distant future, Wisconsin may also become famous for other fermented products, notably wine and cider, thanks to growing public taste for those products and a blossoming wine- and cider-making culture in the Badger State.

Wisconsin now has about 110 wineries—up from 13 in 2000—and has been adding around a dozen new ones each year in recent years. Many of these operations could use some help, which is on the way in the form of a newly appointed CALS-based outreach specialist whose job is to support the state’s wine and hard apple cider industry.

Leaders of the Wisconsin Grape Growers Association, the Wisconsin Vintners Association and the Wisconsin Winery Association worked with CALS faculty in food science and horticulture to apply for a Specialty Crop Block Grant to support the position through the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, with the associations providing matching funds. The specialist is scheduled to start working in early 2015.

The position is part of a larger effort to boost fermentation in Wisconsin. CALS food science professor James Steele and his colleagues are laying the groundwork for a comprehensive fermented foods and beverages program through the Department of Food Science—a program that will take to the next level much of the research and teaching the department has been building on for decades.

Already the program is bearing fruit—or, one might more literally say, “bearing beer.” Over the spring 2015 semester, students participating in Steele’s Fermented Foods & Beverages Laboratory will create and develop a new red lager recipe to be brewed by the Wisconsin Brewing Company and sold at the Memorial Union.

A central goal of the program, Steele explains, is to help improve the quality of fermented food and beverage products. As such, the functional roles played by yeast to influence such characteristics as flavor, color and other attributes will be very much in the spotlight.

“Yeast is a key player, beyond the shadow of a doubt,” says Steele. “It is extremely important, but from a food science perspective, it hasn’t gotten a lot of attention.”

With the help of yeast researchers such as Chris Todd Hittinger and his genetics colleague Audrey Gasch, Steele hopes to create an environment where the food science nuances of fermentation are teased out to the benefit of both growers and the producers of fermented foods and beverages.

The basic fermentation characteristics of various yeast strains are of interest, according to Steele: “For example, how does microbial physiology link to flavor in fermented beverages? These collaborations give us opportunities to look for new strains or develop new strains that could allow for the production of beverages with different flavors. And what we learn in one industry, we can apply to another.”