Rice students hope BioBeer can fight disease

Forget dashing to Spec's for a six-pack. Head instead to a science lab at Rice University.

On second thought, maybe you shouldn't. The brew in the second-floor lab in Keck Hall isn't exactly ready for prime time.

Unless, that is, you're interested in bits of DNA, genetic sequencing and scientific breakthroughs, with the ultimate goal of creating a beer that might fight cancer, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

It started, as so many great ideas do, as a joke.

"But then we found that we'd be able to do it," said Thomas Segall-Shapiro, 20, a junior biochemistry and bioengineering major at Rice. "That's when we got sold on the idea."

BioBeer — a more consumer-friendly name than the original Frankenbeer moniker — will be brewed using yeast genetically modified to produce resveratrol.

Resveratrol, a naturally occurring compound found in red wine and a few other foods, has been shown to have cancer-fighting and cardiovascular benefits, at least in mice.

"We're all about spreading the health," joked Rice junior Taylor Stevenson, another member of the team.

The students will take their preliminary work to Cambridge, Mass., this weekend for the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, where student scientists from around the world showcase new ideas created from interchangeable parts of DNA.

They don't have drinkable beer yet, although Joff Silberg, assistant professor of biochemistry and cell biology and one of the group's faculty advisers, said they should by the end of the semester.

Not that they'll be tippling, of course.

Only one member of the team, senior Sarah Duke, is old enough to legally drink.

Everyone, however, understands that the idea of brewing a healthy beer has drawn attention to what nonscientists might otherwise see as an impossibly wonky endeavor.

The idea surfaced as students relaxed after last year's competition. (Rice's entry, which didn't win, was a bacterial virus that fought antibiotic resistance.)

Peter Nguyen, who is working on his doctorate in biochemistry and cell biology, recalls the scene this way: "Grad students had a couple of beers. Undergrads just had water, I guess."

Nguyen, acting as a mentor to the team, suggested adding resveratrol to beer.

"Everyone was just chuckling," he said.

But he was only half-kidding. He thought it was possible.

By last spring, a core group of students agreed.

The iGEM competition stresses student-led research as well as interdisciplinary work.

"It's a really powerful experience to give them," Silberg said.

By May, work began in earnest.

Most of the materials — chemical solutions, pieces of DNA, common lab bacteria — were available from scientific suppliers. But making beer required something else.

Brock Wagner, a Rice University alumnus who owns Saint Arnold's Brewery, donated the yeast.

A key ingredient of beer along with water, fermentable sugar and hops, yeast is responsible for converting sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide.

Students are working to modify the yeast with two sets of genes, including one that will allow the yeast to metabolize sugars and produce an intermediate chemical. The second set will convert that chemical to resveratrol.

That should result in a healthier beer, produced at no additional cost, said Stevenson.

Why beer? Stevenson points to the numbers: Americans consumed 20.5 gallons of beer per capita in 2005, but only 2.5 gallons of red wine.

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