The Cretaceous roots of agriculture

A comment on a long but fascinating post on yeast genetics and evolution at The Loom sent me to a New Scientist article from a couple of years back which is perhaps more immediately relevant to our agricultural biodiversity focus here.

Some time in the distant past Saccharomyces cerevisiae, to give it its full name, developed a chemical trick that would transform human societies. Some anthropologists have argued that the desire for alcohol was what persuaded our ancestors to become farmers and so led to the birth of civilisation.

The article goes on to describe how brewer’s yeast evolved its somewhat surprising abilities. It turns out that its peculiar habit of carrying out anaerobic respiration even in the presence of oxygen — at a steep energetic cost, and resulting in the production of what is usually a poison, alcohol — dates back to an accidental duplication of its genome back in the Cretaceous. Eighty million years ago later, bakers and brewers are daily taking advantage of a genetic mistake that took place in a microscopic fungus when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. Isn’t agrobiodiversity wonderful?

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