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UW prof puts microbes to work in the kitchen

Tasty creatures talk highlights food that grows

Suzanne Joneson works with students Sharon Dyer and Matt Zeidler in her  general survey of microbiology class.

Suzanne Joneson works with students Sharon Dyer and Matt Zeidler in her general survey of microbiology class.

Dec. 11, 2012

Bakers and beer brewers know the role that science plays in the making of food, but one UW-Waukesha professor is using examples from the kitchen to teach students about microbes. Assistant Professor of Biology Suzanne Joneson recently shared that knowledge with the public during a Tasty Creatures lecture which was held on Dec. 5.

Joneson explained that microbes are "generally defined by their small size - things that are usually too small to see with the naked eye." Microbes are part of microbiology - the study of small things. "In practice, microbes include things as varied as bacteria, archaea, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, and algae," she added.

"While all cells respire, there is a diversity of alternative metabolic pathways in microbes that humans have learned to harvest for our benefit in food production. These alternative metabolic pathways can be grouped into a general process called fermentation, and there is archeological evidence that humans have been using microbial fermentation to produce food products since at least 9,000 B.C.," explained Joneson. She further explained that fermentation has helped humans extend the storage life of food products as fermented food products are not as easily spoiled as fresh food products. Fermentation plays a role in: coffee production, chocolate, bread, beer, wine, cheese, sour-cream, cultured buttermilk, salami and cured meats, sauerkraut, kimchi, traditional pickles, soy-sauce, miso, mushroom-production, and much more.

A palatable lesson

Students in Biology 251 Microbiology, a semester long course with two lab sessions per week, set up experiments and read results to learn how to properly handle microbes, grow them and study diagnostic microbial biochemical characteristics.

"In addition to learning clinical skills, they also learn about microbes in the kitchen, in hand-washing, and in testing environmental water sources," Joneson said.

Several weeks before the semester is over, the class bleaches down the whole lab and then makes food with microbes. In this and previous semesters, students have made goat cheese, sour-cream, cultured buttermilk, sauerkraut, kimchi, pickled vegetables and yogurt.

"We make the food far enough in advance that there is plenty of time for the microbes to do their fermentation, and for us to eat the food on the last day of class."

The importance of microbes

"Microbes are everywhere. Without them, humans couldn't survive," said Joneson. "Microbes can do anything. It is hard to imagine a life-style, niche, or metabolic process, that isn't fulfilled by a microbe. The more we understand about microbes, the more we understand about humans."

"It is an exciting time to be a microbiologist interested in human health," said Joneson.

She said that a five year National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded study, started in 2008, is giving people insight into the frontier of the human microbiome - the set of microbes naturally present in and on the human body.

"While most people focus on the few microbes who cause us disease, most microbes live with us symbiotically and provide a beneficial presence. Microbes help us digest our food, regulate our weight and build an immune system," she said. There is increasing evidence that microbes might also play a role in our behavior and development.

"In addition, microbes help us deal with wastes that we generate, they cycle the most basic elements necessary for life in the environment, and in the lab they have helped us figure out the most basic fundamentals of life. Microbes are a good thing."

Joneson earned a doctorate. in biology at Duke University, where her dissertation investigated the molecular biology of lichen symbiosis and microbial communication. When she's not collecting or identifying lichens, she enjoys exploring the fascinating intersection of cooking, chemistry and microbiology.

Joneson hopes to hold another Tasty Creatures lecture in the future.

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