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Anthony Borneman: For Better Beer, Wine, and Bioethanols

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Title: Senior research scientist, Biosciences, Australian Wine Research Institute
Education: PhD, University of Melbourne, 2002
Recommended by: Michael Snyder, Stanford University

Anthony Borneman spends his days at the Australian Wine Research Institute trying to figure out how to make better wines, beers, bioethanols, and pharmaceuticals. For that, Borneman is comparing the genomes of industrial Saccharomyces cerevisiae strains. "It has been shown that S. cerevisiae is phenotypically heterogeneous such that strains that are used in one industry do not necessarily function well, or at all, in another," he says. "Laboratory strains of S. cerevisiae cannot be used to make wine, and beer strains would probably not be any good at producing bioethanol. We're finding that while genomic differences like SNPs may play a role in this phenotypic heterogeneity, we are also seeing that strains differ in the presence and absence of many genes as well."

The secret life of yeast has been of particular interest to Borneman since he was a postdoc, using yeast as a model for research. He realized that yeast could have many roles outside of being a simplified model for complex biological systems in the lab — he had an opportunity to combine all the new 'omics techniques being implemented in lab strains to study industrial strains of S. cerevisiae and use that information to "rationally design" new strains for different purposes.

Looking ahead

Public perception of genetically modified foods and organisms, however, has limited the techniques he can use to mating and selection, he says. "While these techniques do produce results, they are simply not able to deliver the scope of improvements that we can produce in the research laboratory using GM-derived yeast strains that we develop for R&D purposes," Borneman says. "It is therefore quite frustrating to know how much you could do for the industry were it not for the ban on the use of these techniques."

Despite the limitations, he and his group are using systems biology as a tool for yeast strain development, and they expect that in five years they should have good models of how yeast cells react during wine production and enable them to make accurate predictions as to the exact genetic modifications that produce the desired outcomes. Borneman says this would require the public's acceptance of genetic modification techniques for researchers to be able to take full advantage of systems biology studies and synthetic biology approaches.

And the Nobel goes to ...

Borneman jokes that he's not sure whether the Nobel committee would present one of its awards to someone making a great bottle of wine, but, he says, it's conceivable that synthetic yeast strains could address some of the world's more pressing issues, "whether that be making a strain that could be used to grow a nutritious food source or as a way to get around the use of fossil fuels."

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