Saturday, December 20, 2008

Microorganisms and Fermentation

Although baking bread, brewing beer and making cheese and making cheese has been going on for centuries, the scientific study of these biochemical processes is less than 200 years old. Clues to understanding fermentation emerged in the seventeenth century when Dutch experimentalist Anton Van Leeuwenhoek discovered microorganisms using his microscope. He unraveled the chemical basis of the process of fermentation using analytical techniques for the estimation of carbon dioxide. Two centuries later, in 1857, a French scientist Louis Pasteur published his first report on lactic acid formation from sugar by fermentation. He published a detailed report on alcohol fermentation later in 1860. In this report, he revealed some of the complex physiological processes that happen during fermentation. He proved that fermentation is the consequence of anaerobic life and identified three types of fermentation.
  • Fermentation which generates gas.
  • Fermentation that results in alcohol.
  • Fermentation which results in acids.
At the end of the nineteenth century, Eduard Buchner observed the formation of ethanol and carbon dioxide when cell-free extract of yeast was added to an aqueous solution of sugars. Thus, he proved that cells are not essential for the fermentation process and the components responsible for the process are dissolved in the extract. He named that substance ‘Zymase’. The fermentation process was modified in Germany during World War I to produce glycerine for making the explosive nitroglycerine. Similarly, military armament programs discovered new technologies in food and chemical industries which helped them win battles in the First World War. For example, they used the bacteria that converts corn or molasses into acetone for making the explosive cordite. While biotechnology helped kill soldiers, it also cured them. Sir Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin the first antibiotic, proved highly successful in treating wounded soldiers.

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