Yeasts are great at converting sugars to fuels, but we know surprisingly little about their natural habitats, ecology, and biodiversity. Yeasts are single-celled fungi that vary widely in their ability to consume sugars and tolerate the harsh industrial processes and chemicals necessary for biofuel production. Some yeasts naturally make ethanol, some make oils, and some can be engineered to make other fuels and chemicals. There are over 1,000 described species of yeasts that harbor more genetic diversity than all vertebrates. Every year, new species and diverse populations are being discovered across the world and right here in Wisconsin.
Lisa Sorlie, library tech specialist and science teacher, joined the Yeast Exploration and Analysis Science Team (YEAST) and began searching for new species of wild yeast in soil and bark samples from her schoolyard. Using modern molecular and microbiological lab techniques, Lisa cultured, isolated, sequenced, and identified numerous wild yeast species. At the same time, she developed a biodiversity and evolution unit targeted to middle school students to learn about phylogentic trees and the genetic basis of traits in yeast and humans. Students used the NCBI database to look up and identify different species of wild yeast based upon their genetic code. Read more about her lesson in this story.