Turning Beer Into Wine, One Gene At A Time

Thomas Shapiro, a student at Rice University. i i

Thomas Shapiro and two fellow students at Rice University in Houston are introducing health-improving genes from red wine into beer. Courtesy of Rice University hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Rice University
Thomas Shapiro, a student at Rice University.

At Rice University in Houston, students (from left) Thomas Shapiro, David Ouyang and Taylor Stevenson students are introducing health-improving genes from red wine into beer.

Courtesy of Rice University

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A group of students at Rice University is working to improve Joe Six-Pack's health by taking a chemical found in red wine and genetically engineering it into beer.

Undergraduate bioengineering majors Thomas Shapiro, Taylor Stevenson and David Ouyang told NPR's Jacki Lyden that their goal is to spread the apparent health benefits of wine to a broader group of people.

"The reason we're trying to make beer more like wine is basically because it has a much wider appeal," Shapiro said. "Especially in this country, beer consumption far outstrips wine consumption. And since wine is implicated in having a lot of very beneficial effects on people's health — such as being anti-cancer, possibly good for cardiac health — if we can put these effects into beer, those benefits can be seen by a very wide range of Americans."

Stevenson said the basic idea involves coercing beer yeast to produce a beneficial compound called resveratrol, which is found in red wine, by introducing two genes that are found in grapes.

The students are submitting their new beer design, which they call Biobeer, to the Genetic Engineering Conference in Cambridge, Mass. But because the judges wouldn't be able to taste the actual beer, which hasn't fermented enough yet, the trio is submitting the genes they're using during the brewing process.

"So anyone can now go to the competition and pull these genes out of it," Shapiro said. "It's a very open-source kind of thing."

The beer designers have also put their design on a Web site, where people interested in trying it out can have a look at the genes. Although the students haven't been approached by beer companies, they have been contacted by a number of home brewers interested in replicating the process.

Shapiro says one of the grape genes will likely influence the flavor of the Biobeer.

"In addition to producing the product required for resveratrol, [it's] going to be producing this kind of off-pathway product that will actually give the beer a kind of floral and honeylike aroma and taste," he says.

Not that any of the brewers can legally taste their product at the moment — they're all underage.

This doesn't concern Ouyang, who says the whole process takes time.

"There are so many steps both in the genetic engineering and the actual brewing of the beer," he says, "that in order to have a final product, a finished product that is consumable — we'll definitely be of age by then."

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