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Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Fermentation – Microorganisms, Doing Mighty Work

Fermentation as a phenomenon and its uses, has an ancient history and continues to be a dynamic area in modern times. This basically natural phenomenon involves microorganisms and the enzymes they produce. Fermentation  is being researched, modified and put to a plethora of uses that enrich our lives. We mostly associate microorganisms and pathogens with the harm and havoc they do to our health, environment, property and other assets, and our pockets. Let us now consider the contributions of benign microorganisms.

Fermentation involves the conversion of carbohydrates to alcohols and carbon dioxide or organic acids using microorganisms such as yeasts and bacteria, under anaerobic (lack of oxygen) conditions.   The organic acids formed, such as lactic and acetic acid, have a preservative function. For example, Lactic acid produced by the fermentation of milk by lactic acid bacteria preserves cheese, yogurt and other fermented milk products. 

 In the late 1850’s Louis Pasteur, well known for his exceptional contributions to microbiology and medicine, showed that fermentation is a metabolic process and the result of the action of living microorganisms. He identified yeast as a living organism, which fermented or converted sugar to alcohol.  In 1897 Eduard Buchner a German scientist further discovered that a secretion of yeast caused the fermentation of sugar. He demonstrated that the yeast secretion (which he called zymase) fermented sugar even when there were no living yeast cells in the mixture. Later, the term enzyme came to be applied to all ferments. Now we know that fermentation is caused by enzymes that are produced by microorganisms.