Monday, November 8, 2010

You Down With NCYC?

Having taken the train from Edinburgh to Norwich, riden the bus from Norwich to somewhere near the research park, hoofed it several miles the rest of the way, obtained my security badge, toured the laboratory and gotten the run-down of the place from collection manager Chris Bond, curator Dr. Ian Roberts finally unlocked the door and allowed me a glimpse of what I had come all that way to see: The United Kingdom’s magnificent National Collection…of Yeast Cultures.
“So… that’s it huh?”
“yup, you can see why it’s not much of a tourist attraction”.
About chest high and again as wide, the National Yeast Collection bears an uncanny resemblance to the humming gray plastic icemaker at my college job in café Opus- except that this little puppy doesn’t use ice, it’s pure liquid nitrogen.

Dr. Ian half-not-jokingly suggested that there is probably more bio-diversity in that little box than at the Norwich Zoo. And he is probably right. The NCYC holds over 3,400 different strains of yeast from common brewer’s yeast strains to pathogenic opportunists from the world over. The NCYC plays an interesting role, straddling the divide between commerce and public service. They preserve strains of yeast for posterity-running all sorts of genetic assays to classify each strain- but also delivering cultivated strains upon request (for a reasonable fee) in order to sustain themselves economically. The collection even serves as a fungal swiss-bank of sorts, providing a secure place to store proprietary strains- keeping them safe from an unforeseen microbial disaster back at the brewery.
The collection may be impressive to the microbial-collection amateur like myself, but a little research reveals that it is small beans compared to the massive collections at UC-Davis ( Pfaff collection: 6,000 strains of yeast), Peoria, Illinois (USDA’s ACCR collection: 95,000 strains including all microbes), or Utrecht, Netherlands (CBS: 50,000 fungal strains). Right now, they don’t have the capacity to classify every strain possibly collected (often discoveries of possible new species come in bursts, like finding over 200 different types in the guts of a termite or something). However, they are situated just across the street from a world class genetics laboratory, and The Collection may soon set up an automated system (looks like a large humidifier) which would allow them to increase the speed of analysis exponentially. Who is submitting new strains for classification? The most interesting source I heard of was from a scientist who had revived (using unknown techniques) an ancient strain of yeast from clay pots believed to be fermentation vessels found at an archealogical site in Ecuador.
In case you are wondering, the NCYC adheres (as do many collections) to the convention on Biological Diversity, which recognizes certain rights for countries of origin and strives for equitable distribution of benefit from the collection of genetic resources. As our knowledge of biology burgeons, and our subsequent control over its processes becomes more précising, institutions like the NCYC may come to play important roles in the negotiation of public versus private ownership of genetic resources. They also might help us make cooler beers. Probably both.
If you want to know more about the NCYC, a well written and scrupulously researched article by David Quain appeared in Brewer and Distiller magazine. You can find it here For another interesting take on the science and business of yeast collecting check out the chapter on Yeast Wranglers in Ken Wells’ book “Travels with Barley”.


  1. Loved the "fungal swiss-bank of sorts." touché

  2. And I love the concept (true?) of finding 200 varieties in the gut of a termite. Assume not, though the image sure spurs thoughts of multitude and variety. Your journey sounds as though it can be infinite if you wish! Thanks for your two recent posts and also loving the slide show. Jean

  3. Hi Jean,

    actually the 200 species found in the termite gut included a mix of fungi and bacteria. Thanks again for the great comments!


  4. Your blog is an absolute delight, Max!
    I most recently enjoyed a chuckle over the book title "Travels with Barley".
    Keep up the great adventuring,