Editor’s Note: We don’t think the Daily Nation published this letter by our favourite Bajan biotechnologist, Robert D. Lucas. That is too bad because Mr. Lucas always has something worthwhile to contribute to the discussion.
The Daily Nation
There has been plenty of talk in this country in the past about the need to modernize the sugar industry. This talk has been centered mainly, on the need to develop fiber cane and the manufacture of ethanol as a fuel. I have on numerous occasions, in the past, pointed out the need to improve the yield of alcohol and have stated that, the yield of alcohol is a limiting factor, in the economic production of rum and fuel. This limitation arises, owing to the fact that, alcohol is a toxic by-product of yeast fermentation of molasses.
I have also suggested that the following be done to surmount this problem.
1). Selective pressure, whereby the yeasts are exposed to increasing concentrations of alcohol in the growth media, above the normal threshold level which has been found to be toxic to them.
2). Mutation of the organisms using chemicals or radiation as mutagenic sources.
3). genetically modifying the organisms.
I have also in the past stated that, in the case of rum production, favor profile analysis would be needed to ensure that, no deviation from the acquired taste or flavor takes place.
Additionally, I have pointed out that, the modified yeast can be used as a cheap alternative for the high cost protein which is currently used in the formulation animal rations: either as a by-product of the rum industry or by using a one–step procedure utilizing cellulose as the fermentation substrate (which I have proposed and outlined to the current Minister of Agriculture). All of this has been proposed by me for the last twenty-two years.
It has all fallen on deaf ears. It has been recently reported (Locke.S.F. 2008. Discover. (September) Page 12) that workers at MIT have commenced work on the genetically modifying yeast to increase the yield of alcohol. It has also been recently reported that J. Craig Venter has turned his attention to developing a one-step procedure for cellulose. Knowing this society, one can predict with a high degree of certainty that, no attempt will now be made to modify the yeast.
It is safe to say that, the local industry will opt to purchase the improved yeast. Of course, there is nothing to stop the MIT workers from inserting a-terminator gene sequence in the yeast genome that results in self-destruction of the yeast when a certain concentration of either alcohol or some other chemical in the fermenting substrate is attained. It would be fitting if this were done; foreign exchange would have to expend after each batch of rum is made. There is a saying, “ Where there is no vision, the people perish.” This is an apt description of the policy makers in this country and particularly those in the Ministry of Agriculture.
Robert D. Lucas, Ph.D.