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UBC is home to many a strange room, but few are so unexpected as the Wine Library. Tucked away discreetly in the basement of a nondescript building, painstakingly designed, the library is capable of housing up to 22,000 bottles in strictly controlled conditions. It is, I am told, the most secure room on campus (though I hope this isn’t true, given thenuclear particle accelerator down the road). Row after row of bottles sit, quietly aging, in the name of science.
Just outside the imposing undergrad-proof door, Dr. Hennie van Vuuren and I sit down for a catered lunch of crab cakes with a South African sauvignon blanc called Life From Stone and rack of lamb with pinot noir. An amiable and fiercelyintelligent man who speaks with a light South African accent, the professor, director of the UBC Wine Research Centre and Eagles Chair in food biotechnology, is a leader in the field of metabolic yeast enhancements.
Van Vuuren loves wine. And he’s been using his skills to improve the quality of the object of his love, in particular B.C. wines. The study of how wine ages, for example: only well-produced, well-balanced wines age well. Time and chemical reactions bring out imperfections; each bottle on these shelves will eventually be opened, tasted, and chemically analyzed to provide data to winemakers around the world.
Recently, van Vuuren com-pleted, in partnership with the Australian Wine Research Institute and Genome British Columbia, a project that mapped the genomes of all 16 chardonnay clones. “Many wineries around the world have planted chardonnay clones, and they’re not sure which clone they have planted,” he says. “But we can now identify for them which clone they have, so they can make sure they have the right clone in the right environmental conditions.” You don’t want a late-ripening clone in B.C. any more than you’d choose a clone with berries sitting tightly clustered in Ontario, where they will rot because of the humidity. “For Canada, it’s critically important that the right clones are planted in different wine regions.”
One in three people gets headaches from drinking wine. The cause of this is incomplete malolactic fermentation. In this process amino acids are converted into histamine and tyramine, which are toxins. Van Vuuren has created a yeast that neutralizes these toxins during fermentation, thus eliminating headaches. Surprisingly, winemakers have not widely accepted this yeast. “The industry is very concerned about genetically engineered microorganisms,” he says. “Our yeast was the first one that was approved by the USFDA and Health Canada and Environment Canada.”
In this process, no foreign genes are introduced into the yeast; it is simply a matter of switching certain genes on and others off, none of which permanently alters the genetic code of the yeast. Indeed, this is a process that already occurs in nature through something called transposons, one of the chief mechanisms of evolution, discovered by Barbara McClintock, for which she was awarded a Nobel Prize. The engineering done by van Vuuren will not have any effect on the presence of transposons. What he is doing is momentarily creating a genetic recipe that is beneficial for winemaking, which allows the yeast to fully ferment.
Nor is the process limited to headaches. Van Vuuren points to qualities that will allow yeasts to produce more ethanol, used as fuel. “If we can increase the amount of ethanol produced by the yeast cell, that would be hugely important for the alcoholic and fuel industry.”
Which is not, I think, an understatement. As van Vuuren describes the process of yeast interacting with its environment in a sort of ever-changing dance, the yeast adapting itself to shifting conditions, he speaks with the same level of passion for the science involved as any true oenophile speaks of the bottle. And that is what I take away from this lunch: much more important than the room hidden away in this university basement is the man who works in it. Though it is one heck of a room.