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Food as old as the dinosaurs

By Sarah Hills , 08-Sep-2008

A strain of yeast extracted from amber dating back 25 million to 45 million years could soon be used to make bread, cheese and other foods, according microbiologist Raul Cano.

Cano came to prominence for unearthing DNA and a living bacterial strain from bees preserved in ancient amber, just as the Jurassic Park film brought dinosaurs back to life with the same technique.

The microbiologist is now part owner in the Fossil Fuels Brewing Co, which has already launched a new beer brewed using yeast originally isolated in 1995 from the piece of Burmese amber that contained leaf and flower parts.

The company is developing five beer recipes using the yeast strain but Cano, who is director of the environmental biotechnology institute at California Polytechnic State University, said that it is not limited to alcoholic beverages.

He told FoodNavigator-USA.com: “Fermented foods are made through the intervention of bacteria and yeasts. In addition to beer - wine, dairy products, root beer, bread, and cheese can be made by yeasts.

“While we initially plan to develop five unique beer recipes, in the future we plan to explore other fermented products such as the ones above.

“These amber strains are the predecessors of modern yeasts. They can be thought of as ‘wild’ yeasts as they have not been subjected to selection and mutation to obtain desired traits.

“The beer made is totally natural and unaltered from their native state and the strains are not genetically-modified at all.

“You could say that they are ‘the mother of all yeasts’.”

Cano and his team originally came up with the idea for beer in 1995 when a now defunct company called Ambergene was investigating amber as a source of antimicrobial agents.

The process of drug discovery is long and expensive so they wanted a project that could provide revenues in the short term.

Cano said: “Beer was one of the possibilities because of the recent isolation of several ancient yeasts. We had a brewmaster conduct a checkerboard study of five "promising" yeasts making five styles of beer (ale, pale ale, lager, wheat, and stout) to see which did what best.”

However, Ambergene closed down, so in 2004 Cano and a colleague Chip Lambert formed Fossil Fuels Brewing Co to see if the early attempts at beer making could be successful.

He said the yeast that we are studying, AY108, produces a series of esters that give a ‘Belgian’, fruity aroma that makes the beer quite good and pleasant to drink, without after tastes or bitterness.

The pale ale is said to provide undertones of ginger and pineapple, while the wheat beer has a Belgian-style clover undertone.

Fossil Fuels beer is being distributed around northern California with hopes for it to become mainstream.

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