Innovating research, policy and education in synthetic and systems biology

Should vegans eat yeast?

Bigbang weekend flier

SynthSys social scientist, Dr Erika Szymanski, wowed the audience at the Big Bang Weekend in Wigtown with a sparkling presentation on yeast.

Armed with a rather unusual prop, her pet sourdough yeast starter (see photo below), Erika started with a tricky question: Should vegans eat yeast? Those diminutive microbes may not have tooth and claw but they are certainly very much alive. Indeed, it is perhaps because of their very small scale that we may not be taking them seriously enough. Erika took the audience on a whirlwind tour of the world of yeast and asks whether we should take another took at life on a small scale.

She asks: how is synthetic biology changing our relationship with these highly valuable microbes? We have relied for centuries on yeast for bread and brewing. Today we are rapidly extending their natural remit. We are genetically reprogramming them to make flavours and fragrances, medicines and materials. We are re-constructing them de novo (aka Synthetic Yeast 2.0 project). We are even planning to send them in a rocket to Mars to make the planet inhabitable. Time, perhaps, to take a little more note of our microbial collaborators.

Erika is a Research Fellow in the Engineering Life project led by Dr Jane Calvert in Science, Technology and Social Sciences. This project, funded by the European Research Council, is exploring social dimensions of what happens when engineering principles are applied to biological systems. Erika is also working on the history of yeast genome sequencing in another European Research Council-funded project, TRANSGENE, led by Dr Miguel Garcia-Sancho. 

The Big Bang Weekend is an annual event that explores different aspects of science for the public. This year the topic was ‘Is it alive?’ which explored what we mean by life at both large and small scales. There were great presentations on robots and artificial intelligence, whether or not there is life out there in space, and a comedian’s exploration of human consciousness (or lack thereof).