Australia Has Joined The Global Effort To Create The First Synthetic Complex Organism, A Yeast To Make A Better Wine

Wine grapes. Mark Dadswell/Getty Images

Australian scientists have joined a global project to create the world’s first synthetic complex organism, a yeast which creates the alcohol and flavour in wine and beer.

This is the first step in the new field of synthetic biology to build designer organisms from the ground up.

Macquarie University, backed by $1 million in funding from the NSW Government, will be working on the 14th chromosome of the 16 which make up the yeast. Teams in the US, UK, China and Singapore are synthesising the others.

Much of the flavour and smell in wine, beer and even that Australia signature breakfast spread Vegemite come from the yeast used to make them.

Most know of yeast’s ability to turn sugars into alcohol but few understand the role yeast plays in creating the style and type of wine or beer.

So being able to create a yeast which provides more efficient fermentation and lend specific characteristics to wine is commercially attractive.

Macquarie University is being partnered by the Australian Wine Research Institute based in Adelaide in the Yeast 2.0 project.

“A wholly synthetic yeast organism will be an amazing accomplishment, but it is just the beginning,” says Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research at Macquarie University, Professor Sakkie Pretorius.

“This is history in the making as all previous ground-rules for research in biology are being rewritten.

“Once we can synthesise an organism like yeast we can then apply the same techniques to increasingly more complex organisms. The possibilities in medicine, or the environment, for example, are truly mind-blowing.”

The end result with be a synthetic organism and not a genetically modified yeast.

Global research leader of the project Professor Jef Boeke of New York University published the announcement of the synthesis of Chromosome III of the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae in international journal Science this year. It was the first synthetic chromosome of any living organism more complex than simple bacteria.

Dr Dan Johnson, managing director of the Australian Wine Research Institute, says Yeast 2.0 will bring enormous gains in understanding how yeast works with benefits for a wide range of industries including wine production.

The NSW Department of Primary Industries and the NSW Office for Science & Research, through its Research Attraction and Acceleration Program, will each contribute $500,000 in funding to the Yeast 2.0 project.

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