The EUR 3.4 million ‘Cornucopia’ EU consortium project, coordinated by Professor Jure Piskur of Lund University in Sweden, aims to explore the natural diversity and potential of yeasts in order to identify currently unused species that may have novel industrial traits.
The Cornucopia project is a multidisciplinary EU project involving eleven science and industry-based teams including Lund University, KU Leuven, NIZO Food Research, and CBS fungal biodiversity centre. The project began in February 2011 and will last for four years.
“A large benefit for [the food] industry in the EU and worldwide will be our intensive screening of non-conventional yeasts for possible beneficial traits which can be introduced into foods,” explained Prof. Piskur.
“Biodiversity is an alternative approach to genetically modified yeasts. By characterising new species found in nature we will increase the diversity and number of yeasts used for industrial purposes,” he added.
Yeast is an important ingredient in the production of various food products, including wine, beer, cheeses, sausages, and bread.
However, until now, only baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) has been comprehensively studied; due to its importance in bread and beer production and its role in the production of pharmaceutical drugs such as insulin.
However, in nature, there is a vast potential for the use of other species of yeast, with over 1500 other species yet to be studied for their properties.
The research activities are expected to provide new insights into yeast biodiversity; it is estimated that less than one tenth of yeasts have so far been identified, added Prof Piskur.
Piskur explained that looking through a microscope, many kinds of yeast seem very similar to each other, but this is not the case. He added that because yeasts have evolved over such a long time, they show genetic variation between different species that is larger than the evolutionary differences between humans and fish.
Today, the use of industrial yeasts is preferred over natural fermentation because the process is easier to control, however only a few decades ago fermentation was carried out using a variety of naturally occurring yeasts.
Piskur said suggests that if such biodiversity were re-introduced introduced, in a controllable way, we could expect new aromas and flavours.
“There is a great interest in producing light beer with more flavour, and we hope that new species of yeast can contribute to this,” he said.
Fermentation expert, Dr. Lucie Hazelwood of NIZO Food Research explained that NIZO will be responsible for screening selected yeast species for the formation of novel aroma compounds, and investigating their potential for probiotic effects.
Hazelwood explained that one potential use of some of the non-conventional yeasts may be in low alcohol wine and beer products.
“Companies are looking for solutions for low alcohol products … New yeast species may lead to lower alcohol yields while maintaining positive (novel) aromas,” said Hazelwood.
“The outcomes of this project may also lead to new cheese products in which yeasts play a role,” she added.
NIZO will also test the selected yeasts for probiotic properties.
“Yeasts are already known to have probiotic effects, either directly or through their metabolites … The potential of this highly variable group or organisms [may] hold new solutions for foods which we will develop together,” said Hazelwood.