Thursday, 18 January 2018

GUEST BLOG and CASE STUDY: Authentic Projects in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology

Dr Liz Alvey
Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology

Liz studied Biochemistry and Genetics at the University of Nottingham before going on to complete her Sainsbury-funded PhD at the John Innes Centre, Norwich. She worked as a plant genetics researcher at the University of Cambridge before moving to Sheffield in 2014. Liz is now a lecturer in the MBB department here at UoS.


What is the brewing project all about?

During level three, Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (MBB) students undertake a 20 credit research project (MBB360) which forms the cornerstone of their final year studies. There are several types of projects offered by the MBB department including experimental, teaching and clinical diagnostics. In 2017-18 we offered an authentic industrial biotechnology experience in collaboration with Claire Monk of Welbeck Abbey Brewery.

This project aims to isolate and characterise local beer yeasts with the view to developing new strains that are better suited to modern microbrewing methods. The students discussed challenges of the brewing industry with our industrial partner and designed experiments to characterise the yeasts currently in use by the brewing industry with these challenges in mind.

This module develops the core experimental design, data interpretation and analysis skills required of any science graduate but also fosters the communication skills and enterprising attitude required when collaborating with industrial partners. The final third of the project is entirely student-driven so they have the freedom to be totally creative with their experiments but also manage the risk of failure. Their self-designed experiments are not guaranteed to be successful, but the assessment focuses on the design of experiments and the learning gained rather than whether the outcome was successful. These are aspects of the enterprising capabilities which are perhaps hard to teach within the constraints of a typical undergraduate curriculum.

Most undergraduate research projects are assessed by a lab report, project report, oral presentation and a lay summary, but in this case the students produce a 'brewer's report' instead of the lay summary which is assessed by our industrial partner.

Photo diary

This year’s brewing students kicked off their project with a trip to The University Arms - strictly for scientific purposes - in order to collect small samples of beer, from Welbeck and from other breweries ,to be used in their experiments.

The group also visited Welbeck Abbey Brewery in Worksop, where the head brewer Claire Monk, (University of Sheffield Biochemistry and Microbiology graduate) gave the students a chance to understand brewing techniques that are used in industry.

Students are now back in the lab and their experiments are in full swing. They have isolated and grown the yeasts from our samples from the University Arms (a process called yeast ranching).

They are currently sequencing some genes that have been linked to a honey flavour in beers. They are testing whether the yeast prefer to hang out at the top or the bottom of the brew. This is important as modern craft breweries have closed-top fermenters so it is no longer possible to scoop the yeast off the top to start your next brew.

They have developed a recipe for fake beermedia so that we can test our yeast's fermenting powers in our laboratory but no one has taken up the offer of a fake beer birthday pint... yet!

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