A group of college students at Rice University are taking their favorite pastime and turning it into a research project. Their passion? Beer. Their project? Inventing a brew that contains resveratrol, a chemical present in wine that lowers the risk of heart disease and cancer. The team, made up of eight graduate and undergraduate students and advised by six faculty members, is entering its invention in the world’s largest synthetic biology competition: International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM), taking place November 8th and 9th in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
To create their BioBeer, the students are attempting to genetically alter a strain of yeast so that it produces resveratrol while also fermenting beer. Their lab isn’t filled with red plastic Solo cups and taps on the tables because they haven’t yet brewed their first batch. Most of the students involved in the project couldn’t drink it anyway—they are under 21.
Fans of the Houston microbrewery Saint Arnold Brewing Company may someday recognize a hint of familiar flavor in the futuristic BioBeer since the team is working with a strain of donated yeast used to make the company’s wheat beer. Instead of adding hops, they’re adding genes, so to speak. Two sets of genes are in play here: the first allows the yeast to metabolize sugars and excrete an intermediate chemical. The second converts that chemical into the secret ingredient, resveratrol. The team has created a strain of yeast that can complete the latter conversion, but they are still working on genetically modifying the former. They hope to have the entire chemical reaction by the time the competition rolls around, but say that even if they don’t, they can still enter with data from other experiments and computer models to back them up. They also plan to brew their first test batches before heading north in November.
Nobody believes chugging steins of BioBeer will add twenty years to your life, and it definitely won’t make you thinner. The benefits of resveratrol (anti-inflammatory, anticancer, and cardiovascular) have only been proved in studies performed on mice and other animals. Despite the lack of human-based studies, the chemical is sold as a dietary supplement and extolled by some as the key ingredient in the “French Paradox”, that famous mystery whereby the French have a fatty diet yet remain ever-so svelte (or, to be more accurate, have low rates of heart disease). “I have seen some studies where [resveratrol] has been shown to activate the same proteins that are known to play a role in extending the life span of lab animals that are kept on low-calorie diets,” said junior classman team member David Ouyang.
Even if you don’t care for beer, you might want to check out the iGEM competition. Previous year’s entries include bacteria that behave like photographic film and bacteria that smell like mint while they are growing, but like bananas when they stop growing. Like a far more sophisticated Lego competition, each team uses DNA building blocks to create living organisms that do bizarre things. “In terms of education value, the great thing about synthetic biology research is that it stimulates undergraduate creativity and gives them an opportunity to work collaboratively at an early stage of their science and engineering education,” said adviser Jonathan Silberg, assistant professor of biochemistry and cell biology. “While students work collaboratively in other undergraduate research endeavors, they typically are not given the pie-in-the-sky opportunity to pursue their own ideas.” Rice’s team name is the BiOWLogists and they are returning for their third year of competition.
A final caveat: Don’t start dreaming of BioBeer-filled games of beer pong or flip cup anytime soon. Until this team of young researchers eliminates all the additive “marker” chemicals in their brew and the FDA approves, no one will be drinking a drop.
Via: Rice University