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Baguettes and Biology: Weekend Festival to Highlight the Science of Sourdough

Tim Fields
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Creative Commons

 

Asheville’s about to get its annual, massive dose of carbohydrates. The 15th Asheville Bread Fest is Sat., and this year’s theme is sourdough.

The tangy variety is made by fermentation, with the help of yeast and naturally occuring bacteria. The starter used to make sourdough could potentially tell us more about the world and ourselves than simply what’s inside a loaf.

This festival is stacked with hands-on workshops centered on sourdough bread baking, to include pie crusts, bagels and babka. But outside the flour-dusted activities -- there are also several presentations about what sourdough can reveal about the world around us.

Dr. Erin McKenney is a microbial ecologist and research fellow who studies and documents naturally occurring bacteria found in living organisms. She's also developing low-cost ways to teach microbiology -- using sourdough starter -- to future generations of scientists.
Credit Rob Dunn Lab
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Rob Dunn Lab
Dr. Erin McKenney is a microbial ecologist and research fellow who studies and documents naturally occurring bacteria found in living organisms. She's also developing low-cost ways to teach microbiology -- using sourdough starter -- to future generations of scientists.

“Bread is inextricably tied to human cultures, no matter where we’re from across the world. And microbial cultures are actually lying at the heart of those human cultures,” microbial ecologist Dr. Erin McKenney said. She’s leading two discussions about fermentation this weekend.

McKenney is post-doctoral research fellow at Rob Dunn’s lab, through the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. She and a cohort of researchers are leading an effort, called the Global Sourdough Project. They’re documenting the bacteria and microorganisms found in the starter used to make bread, in samples from around the world. As it turns out, sourdough can serve as a model for other human body environments.

“Where there’s a delicate balance, between bacteria and yeast. A lot of times there’s that interplay of, if the bacteria go dormant, or are killed somehow, then you get a bloom of yeast, which on a human body might be described as a yeast infection,” McKenney said. “To me, there’s an interesting dynamic between these microbes for sourdough starters that could have implications for understanding human health.”

In addition to presenting some of her findings, McKenney will also discuss ways sourdough can be used to teach microbiology in school or home settings, no laboratory required. She calls her method “countertop science.”

 

If you go:

The Asheville Bread Festival is Sat. April 13 at New Belgium Brewing. Some workshops require registration. More information can be found here

 

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