Posts Tagged ‘Alcohol’

The brewer’s yoke, the domestication of microbes

// July 15th, 2012 // Comments Off on The brewer’s yoke, the domestication of microbes // Recent Research

Something happened when I was spliced, something wrong. Some random event in my chromosomes, I suppose it was. In any event, I wound up lacking. My sister took all the toxin genes, and I was left with nothing.

It’s a scary world out there for a fungus without a toxin. How would I strike fear into the hearts of all animals who dared to eat the plants I was eating? How, without my precious aflatoxin to attack the liver, causing acute sickness or eventual cancer?

Quite simply, I’m surprised I lasted as long as I did before they found me.

Indeed, I’m not sure how they did find me. I had a pretty good disguise, growing colonies of blue along the endless islands of white rice grains, just like my toxic cousins always had. Safe from munching animals by my don’t-eat-me mimicry, the promise of sickness is the discoloured rice.

For some reason, these sake brewers saw past it all. I thought I was a goner when they lifted me up from the wild and plonked me into a house of wood.

Then I saw the food.

A. oryzae in heaven. Image by Forrest O.

It’s hard for mould like me to see, lacking in the eye department, but I knew it was there. An endless carpet of steamed rice. With my filamentous fronds I could touch it. Drill down into it and grow cottony soft, sprout fruiting bodies on the surface and spread on and on.

Call me legion, for we are many. Better yet, call me qū meí jūn in Pinwin, kōji-kin in Japanese, nulook-gyun in Korean or the grandiose Aspergillus oryzae in scientific circles. Back then, some 2000 years ago, I didn’t know who I was, or that I would one day be the National Fungus of Japan.

That’s when the changes happened.

I didn’t notice at first, I don’t know that there was ever a master plan. It felt… natural. Human hands, bristling with microbes and pitted with pores, dropped me into heaven. And when I had eaten the heaven for a time, they picked me up and dropped me once more into fresh heaven.

Incomprehensible! These hands must have spent hours polishing the rice to remove all the husks, then steamed it to perfection, cooled it so I didn’t burn my filaments, then spread it out – just for me! It was like being a king! King Kōji-kin!

I'm a national icon, and pretty cute too. Image by Ryoku Kasinn

As they fed me and I ate, we gradually adapted to please one another. Heaven grew ever more heavenly, until the temperature and humidity was just so.

For my part, I started growing much faster, hell, I had brilliant conditions for it and not a doubt in the world that I could grow as fast as I pleased. Fearlessly fast.

Over generations, they selected only the best for their purposes, which at that stage I knew nothing about. They selected the sons and daughters (hell, we’re all of one gender here) that could best turn rice starch to sugar. They also preferred fungi of least colour, but most smell and flavour. Each generation, the best of me would be plucked and propagated.

Turning starch to sugar is a tricky thing. I suppose the point of starch is to tie up the sugar molecules into a big, complex network so the plant can use them later. For me, kōji-kin I secrete the amylase enzymes, biological machine that chops starch into pieces of sweet. From a couple of recently-licked hands, I’ve learned humans make the same enzyme in their saliva. My amylases, however, not only make glucose, but a few other sugars that produce a wonderful flavour.

But why, pray tell? Have you worked it out yet?

Winemakers use yeast to turn the natural sugars in grapes into alcohol. Beer brewers must malt their barley, partially growing the seed to convert starch to sugar, to ferment it with yeast into alcohol.

And I, the humble fungus, plucked from the wild a millennia ago for a deficit in character. My non-toxic self excels, above all other moulds, in turning rice starch into sugars.

From the beds of heaven, me and my alchemical rice is transferred to the fermenting tank. Mixed with yeast, water and more rice, then left to stew in our own juices for a month.

This mash is pressed and filtered, and the sweet, alcoholic liquid that pours forth is bottled as sake.

Not to ring my own bell filaments, but I make soy sauce and miso too. That’s a whole meal – appetizer, main, and a drink.

Domesticated A oryzae (left) and wild A flavus (right). Image by John Gibbons, Vanderbilt University

These days I hardly recognise myself! So much of me has changed by growing with the sake brewers. Though I still share some 95% of my genome with my wild and toxic cousin A. flavus (and you, human reader, share 99% of yours with a chimpanzee), I am given all I could ever want to eat and praised world-over for my skill in sake making. While A. flavus, the wild thing, is targeted daily for a war against fungi with resistant crops and competitive yeasts.

What must the wolf think of the dog? Or the auroch of the cow? Well, to their accusations I say this: We may change our genes and appearance for protection and care, but, in doing so, we also mould the humans who cooperate with us. Through their attentions and skills, they, too, are domesticated.

This story was inspired by this recent research by Vanderbilt University into the domestication of microbes. “Although people don’t often think about it, we haven’t only domesticated animals and plants, but we have also domesticated dozens of different microbes.” – Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Antonis Rokas in the press release. You can find more information on brewing sake here, and a beautiful description of koji pampering by interns at a sake house in Japan who blogged their experiences.

ResearchBlogging.orgGibbons, J. et. al. (2012). The Evolutionary Imprint of Domestication on Genome Variation and Function of the Filamentous Fungus Aspergillus oryzae Current Biology

Alcoholic art, crystals of liquor

// July 12th, 2011 // 2 Comments » // Just for Fun, Science Art

So it’s appropriate that I’m a little bit tipsy while writing this.

Alcohol under a microscope! That’s today’s post. BevShots take photographs of alcohol crystallized on a slide, shot under a polarized light microscope. It can take up to four weeks for the alcohol to dry completely on the slide. It’s art, distilled. And quite magnificent.

Margarita

Mmm margarita. And do you like pina colada?

Pina colada

What pretty rum. I think the citric acid helps. Anyone for a pint?

English oatmeal stout

Bevshots sell the pics (there’s heaps) as metallic prints, on canvas or as merchandise – like hip flasks, for example. Look, I’m not big on promoting items, but these would make a sweet gift for a 21st birthday. They’re stunning, and only $28. It’s a nice personal touch if you know their favourite drink.

Oh, and vodka shot glasses! So cool…

Vodka shot glasses

There’s even an iPhone app, so you can pick your poison and see the bevshots version. I imagine this will increase your popularity and attractiveness with every drink. Kind of like beer glasses.

Isn’t this just the best mix of science, alcohol and art? They should be paying me for this kinda publicity (feel free to send me a gift, guys!)

Sometimes scientists just have to douse experiments in alcohol

// January 15th, 2011 // 1 Comment » // Recent Research

Superconductor supermarket

Superconductor supermarket. Image by andreasmarx

In which scientists get drunk and pour their beverages on compounds to create superconductors.

It’s no secret that I cook better with wine. I’m not just talking about a dash of red in pasta sauce or half a bottle of cheap white in risotto. I mean, when I’m tipsy I’m generous with the flavours and cook in a twirling, happy sashay of creation. But who knew it was the same with science?

Superconductors are metals at very low temperatures (6 Kelvin) which gain certain properties: Namely that the normal resistance drops to zero and they start conducting electricity incredibly well.

The experiment conducted at the National Institute for Materials Science in Japan involved soaking compounds (powders of iron, tellurium and tellurium sulfide) in different fluids, then cooling them and testing how well they conducted electricity.

First experiment: pure water. Results = boring. (10% superconducting volume fraction)
Second experiment: water plus ethanol. Results = yawn. (11%)
Third experiment: pure ethanol. Results = worse than water. (6%)

At this stage, I can only assume the scientists got drunk. They got a variety of different drinks (whiskey, sake, wine, etc) poured out 20 mL shots and soaked the compound in their boozy concoctions. When they tested conductivity, the results were surprising. Whiskey did well, beer did better, and red wine was streaks ahead with a whopping 63% of the material showing superconductive properties. For some reason commercial drinks created better superconductors than pure ethanol and water.

Here’s a graph of the results.

superconducting drinks

Graph by Keita Deguchi

As you can see, red wine is a clear winner, followed by white wine, beer, sake and other commercial drinks. At the bottom is boring old ethanol/water. Clearly what was lacking was a bit of FLAVOUR. That, or oxygen, particulates… actually they don’t know why it happened. More experiments need to be performed. Probably every Friday night from 3pm.

Still, it’s a fantastic case of serendipity. Plus, once the results were in, all the drinks were ALREADY THERE for celebrating! Sweet!

The paper is available free from arXiv – Deguchi K. et al “Superconductivity in FeTe1-xSx induced by alcohol”

Absinthe drinking makes Homer something something

// January 15th, 2010 // 6 Comments » // Drugs, Poisons

When I was but a lass, freshly ID’d and able to finally hit the local tavern, there was a rumour around that Absinthe was THE drink if you wanted to get drunk fast, and as a bonus, if you could get the proper stuff, it causes hallucinations. OMG terribly exciting. I could feel jolts of electricity down my spine as I tremulously ordered (with much nudging from my friends) a round of Absinthe.

And oh, the DRAMA of it all! Green liquid, a sugar cube on a special spoon, and all of it on fire! We could only afford one each, before our pockets resolutely returned us to ordering jugs of Sangria. The bitter licorice taste lingered on though, and we were rollickingly tipsy.

Ah, the folly of youth. ‘Tis all a lie!

At the core of the myth is that Absinthe contains essential oil from the Wormwood plant, which is psychoactive and hallucinogenic. It’s true that Wormwood does contain thujole, which is a GABA antagonist (it blocks the effect of the neurotransmitter GABA), but it’s more likely to cause seizures than hallucinations. Also the amount of thujole in Absinthe is very low because of the way the spirit is made, and nowadays there are rules about what percentage of thujole is allowed. People have studied old bottles of the stuff too, and it wasn’t found to be super-thujolated. It was very popular with poets and artists; they said the green fairy helped them be more creative.

More creative, or more deadly? One tale tells of a man who killed his family in 1906 and claimed Absinthe drove him crazy. He was actually excessively drunk from a number of drinks, and was found guilty. After this and the subsequent public outcry, Absinthe was prohibited in Switzerland. France and the USA followed suit. Nonetheless, it’s the remarkably high alcohol content in Absinthe that makes it a dangerous drink, you’d definitely die from alcohol poisoning before dying from Wormwood poisoning.

The scariest story by far is the one in Eurotrip where a guy makes out with his sister after an Absinthe bender. “Dude, you kissed your sister!” That’s way worse then killing your family!

So by all means, if you like Absinthe (I’m not a fan) then drink it, but any mind-alterations are probably just your imagination. You’re supposed to mix it with water to let the flavours come out. Has anyone actually done this? Apparently it makes the clear green liquid go cloudy, because the essential oils are not soluble in water. Now that’s science.

Effects of Alcohol – Why You Shouldn’t Drink on an Empty Stomach

// November 9th, 2009 // 9 Comments » // How Things Work, Poisons

Everyone knows you’re supposed to eat something “to line the stomach” before you hit the town, but why is that?

Alcohol is pretty volatile, around 5% of what you drink is expelled through the lungs. It’s why you can smell alcohol on someone’s breath, and it’s how breath testers work. Breathalysers just take advantage of the fact that there is a constant ratio of 1:2300 between the amount of alcohol exhaled and blood alcohol level.

The rest of the alcohol is broken down in a three step process.

1. Alcohol dehydrogenase converts alcohol to acetadehyde with the help of coenzyme NAD. This is the rate-limiting step in the metabolism of alcohol, and the reason you can only metabolise about one standard drink an hour.

2. Aldehyde dehydrogenase converts the aldehyde to acetic acid (vinegar.)

3. Acetic acid is broken down into carbon dioxide and water, releasing energy. This energy, along with the molecules of NADH that are produced along the way, is the reason alcohol is high in calories.

This be a rare example of zero-order metabolism, meaning that it doesn’t get faster when there’s more alcohol. It’s probably due to the small amount of enzyme (or the coenzyme) in that first step becoming saturated after only a small amount of alcohol.

So why do they say you shouldn’t drink on an empty stomach? It all comes back to that nifty enzyme, alcohol dehydrogenase. 85% of the metabolism happens in the liver (that be why liver disease is common ‘mongst alcoholics) and 15% happens in the stomach where the enzyme is present in the lining. It breaks down the alcohol before it can even enter your bloodstream!

Drinking anything on an empty stomach causes rapid gastric emptying, reducing the time the alcohol is exposed to the alcohol dehydrogenase in your stomach lining. Rapid emptying means that the alcohol hits your bloodstream faster and in greater concentration, resulting in a state of inebriation that is more ass than class.

Women have about 50% less gastric alcohol dehydrogenase than men, one of three reasons that women have higher blood alcohol levels than men after the same number of drinks. The other two being that men have more muscle, which has lots of blood vessels giving the alcohol more space to dilute in, and women have more body fat, which does not soak up alcohol and therefore concentrates it in the blood.

So ’tis true indeed that you should eat well before a night of drinking. I myself have conducted extensive experiments on this matter (in the name of science), and never have I been drunker than at my pirate-themed 21st, which I attribute to my skipping dinner that night. Although the two for one cocktail hour probably didn’t help.






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