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Abertay scientist sets out to find undiscovered yeast

A University of Abertay Dundee scientist has braved scorching temperatures in harsh deserts to track down a new strain of "killer yeast" which could be used in agriculture and beer brewing.

With a grant from NATO, Dr Graeme Walker recently flew out to Morocco to locate the Argan tree, a hardy plant which only grows in the arid climate of the Moroccan desert, where temperatures can exceed 45C/120f.

The bushy-leaved tree produces a unique fruit which it is believed contains a number of undiscovered yeasts, including strains known as Killer Yeasts which can attack and destroy fungi.

It is hoped, if Dr Walker and his collaborators can isolate the yeast, it could be used in place of chemical sprays to attack the organisms which cause crop disease and wood decay.

Dr Walker said: "We have long known that killer yeasts can be used to attack other yeasts, such as those which cause thrush in humans. But it has only recently been proved, by a PhD student at Abertay, that some are also anti-fungal.

"It means we can find new applications for them, including promoting them as a more environmentally friendly fungicide to control invading fungi which can devastate crops."

A collection of the Argan fruit has been gathered by Dr Walker and sent off to be analysed by colleagues at universities in Italy and Morocco, where individual strains of yeast are expected to be identified.

Once they have been isolated, the material will be dispatched to Abertay, where Dr Walker and his team will begin looking at their various applications.

He commented: "Another aspect we`re looking at is the use of these yeasts in brewing and other alcohol fermentation processes. At the moment, equipment used in fermentation needs to be cooled down every so often because the yeasts used can`t handle high temperatures.

"But the Argan tree seems to be quite comfortable in the sort of baking-hot heat most trees can`t survive in. It maybe that the yeasts in the fruit are thermo-tolerant, meaning they can survive the heat.

"Thermo-tolerant yeasts could reduce the time taken to ferment alcohol, and bring costs down in the industry, by entirely removing the need to cool down the fermentors."

Dr Walker is an internationally renowned expert on yeast, whose recent work has taken him to Brazil, Italy, South Africa, the USA and Canada.

Back home, he is a Reader in Biotechnology at the University, passing on his expertise to students studying BSc and MSc Biotechnology courses."

University of Abertay Dundee. May 2002.

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