Professor Jens Nielsen, director of Centre for Microbial Biotechnology (CMB) at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), will be the coordinator of this coordination action sponsored by the EU sixth framework programme.
Neilsen believes that the new technologies that may arise from metabolic engineering and systems biology will have a direct impact on the food industry.
"Understanding yeast at the "systems level" is a great step forward," he said. "This will increase our ability to utilise metabolic engineering for industrial production."
The yeast market is growing on the back of increasing demand for processed foods and a dynamic growth in food production, offsetting stagnant growth in developed countries of around 1 to 2 per cent.
In addition, the market for yeast extract-based flavour enhancers has been expanding in parallel to the waning popularity of hydrolysed vegetable proteins (HVPs). Food makers are increasingly moving away from including HVPs in their formulations and towards yeast extract flavour enhancers, driven by concerns that acid-hydrolysed HVP, produced using hydrochloric acid, could be potentially carcinogenic due to the 3-MCPD levels.
But European yeast production faces new challenges. The region has dominated the production of speciality yeast products, such as yeast extracts, for years - in a global €1.17 billion market, a handful of European suppliers, including BioSpringer, DSM, and Bel Industries, currently supply two-third's of the world's 100,000 MT consumption.
However, European suppliers are facing the growing influence of Asia, and in particular China, on the global market. This reflects the situation in a number of other ingredients categories.
Access to cheaper manpower and reduced manufacturing costs, on a comparative basis with Europe, have given Chinese yeast suppliers a tool for undercutting European prices.
The new yeast project could therefore provide European producers with a cutting edge. The scheme, which involves 17 European universities and 2 start-up biotech companies - InNetics and Fluxome Sciences - has a budget of €1.3 million that will be used for activities aimed at facilitating and improving research in yeast systems biology.
The project is due to run for three years and it involves most of the best EU academic centres in this field of science including Biozentrum University of Basel, Bogazici University Istanbul, Manchester University and University of Vienna.
Even though this is a European project, the scientists behind the initiative believe that international conferences, training activities and the creation of a database will benefit a worldwide group of R&D specialists.
Industrial production of yeast extracts began in the 1950s, and in 1974 the first commercial yeast extract containing 5'GMP, a natural nucleotide coming from the yeast RNA, was produced on an industrial scale.
Baker's yeasts and lactic yeasts are the main "primary grown yeasts", cultivated specifically for direct processing into specialty yeast products, such as yeast extracts. Brewer's yeasts grow under anaerobic conditions (without oxygen), except for the few first hours of the beer production. Malted barley is used as the main raw material, together with hops.