While most college students often look forward to gulp down cans of beer, a group of Rice University learners are bit fast forward: they are genetically engineering a beer that contains resveratrol, a compound in wine that's been shown to reduce cancer and heart disease.
"BioBeer" will be entered in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition November 8-9 in Cambridge, Mass. Rice's student-led iGEM team - the Rice BiOWLogists, entered the competition earlier too, but were never in the running for the prize.
"After last year's contest, we were sitting around talking about what we'd do this year. (Graduate student) Peter Nguyen made a joke about putting resveratrol into beer, but none of us took it seriously," said junior Taylor Stevenson.
While the team does plan to brew a few test batches in coming weeks, these will contain some unappetizing chemical "markers" that will be needed for the experiments.
"There's no way anyone's drinking any of this until we get rid of that, not to mention that there's only one genetically modified strain of yeast that's ever been approved for use in beer, period. In short, it will be a long time before anybody consumes any of this," said junior Thomas Segall-Shapiro.
Resveratrol is a naturally occurring compound that some studies have found to have anti-inflammatory, anticancer and cardiovascular benefits for mice and other animals. While it's still unclear if humans enjoy the same benefits, resveratrol is already sold as a health supplement.
Some people also believe it could play a role in the "French paradox," the seemingly contradictory observation that the French suffer from relatively low rates of heart disease despite having a diet that's rich in saturated fats.
"I have seen some studies where it's been shown to activate the same proteins that are known to play a role in extending the life span of lab animals that are kept on low-calorie diets," said junior David Ouyang.
Ouyang revealed that the team is working with a strain of yeast that's used commercially to make wheat beer.
They got a sample of the yeast from Houston's Saint Arnold Brewing Company, and they are modifying it with two sets of genes. The first set allows the yeast to metabolize sugars and excrete an intermediate chemical that the second set can later convert into resveratrol.
"One set of genes gets you from A to B, and the other gets you from B to C. We've already created a strain that has the B-to-C genes, but our genes for the A-to-B part are still on order," said Stevenson.
And now the team is positive that it will finish the full A-to-C yeast in time to get some data before entering the Cambridge competition.
Regardless of how the BiOWLogists fare with BioBeer, they are already looking ahead to next year.