When the Covid-19 pandemic thwarted a British citizen science project to research resistant yeast strains, the team tried a different form of engagement. Mr. climate change and animal yeast is an illustrated story about climate change, biofuel fermentation and citizen science, written by Naomi Wilkinson and illustrated by Sarah Routledge of the SuperYeast project team at Aston University, UK.
Wilkinson joined the SuperYeast team as part of a year of internship to investigate the tolerability of various strains of yeast that are crowdsourced from brewers and bakers. “In the lab, I did a pilot study on yeast samples we received from the York Beer Festival along with strains from the supermarket,” she explains.
The team wants to make yeasts that can survive in high alcohol environments and thought that a closer look at yeasts used in beer and bread production could provide some clues. And given the number of people trying sourdough entrees or self-brewing during the lockdown, what better time to crowdsource attendees?
Alan Goddard, Senior Lecturer in Biochemistry at Aston University, initiated the project. “Basically, we called on friends and people we didn’t know across Europe to develop a project that looked at how to modify the membrane of yeast and bacteria to prevent them from being passed through the products they make , to be killed. ‘ he explains.
When yeasts, which are used in brewing or winemaking, are inactivated by alcohol, it is called a stuck fermentation, which can greatly alter the taste profile of the product. Hotter temperatures due to climate change result in fruits with higher sugar content. Hence, there is a need for more robust yeasts that convert excess sugars to alcohol before they are destroyed.
“In stressful situations, you can get different strains to mate and then make hybrid strains that tend to be a little unstable, but we have some more stable strains that have some desirable traits,” says Goddard. “You can sometimes improve on what’s out there, but by screening huge libraries, I think nature did a pretty good job of choosing these yeasts from the start.”
A creative culture
When the UK’s first lockdown began just days after receiving ethics approval, Wilkinson’s mediation plans had to change. “I had to stay on my feet to move the project forward,” she explains. Although some yeast samples had arrived at the laboratory, the project stalled due to the pandemic. “We decided to switch the project to something else in the meantime,” says Goddard. “Naomi basically came up with the idea to write this book for kids and Sarah, who is a postdoc in the lab and a really good artist, did all of the pictures.”
The book captures the essence of the SuperYeast Citizen Science project, even with a cartoon Goddard. However, it focused on fermentation to make a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels in ethanol rather than making alcoholic beverages.
Wilkinson believes the book might encourage children to contribute to the Citizen Science project. “I love science communication,” she explains. “By creating this channel between scientists and the public, we have the opportunity to stimulate discussions, question our behavior and increase fascination.”
Goddard also preoccupies young people with science. “If people had better science education in general, it could help a little more with things like the Covid vaccine,” he says. “If people understood a little more about the science behind it, we’d probably have better acceptance.”
The SuperYeast project didn’t have as many participants as the team had hoped because of Covid, but it reached as far as Australia, where a teacher involved her entire class in the project.
In addition to the picture book, the team also created free lesson plans for teachers to download and use in class. The package includes yeast sampling instructions and links to an interactive leaderboard on the project website that ranks the yeast types tested according to the maximum alcohol and sugar levels they can grow in.
“I would definitely do it again,” says Goddard. “One of the biggest things we’ve learned is how to involve people, that’s the challenge. I can do the science, I can do videos, I can do posters – I think the hard part is getting people involved. “