UI graduate student bakes bread using 4,500-year-old yeast

A UI biology graduate student, along with two other scientists, recently used yeast found in 4,500 years old piece of pottery to make sourdough bread. With the help of modern technology, the team was able to recreate an ancient recipe.

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Lauren White, News Reporter

An interdisciplinary team of researchers, including the creator of the Xbox and a University of Iowa graduate student, recently collaborated to use 4,500-year-old yeast and bake sourdough bread similar to what the Egyptians used to make.

Richard Bowman, a UI biology graduate student, said the process required the recovery of yeast from ancient pottery using a syringe filled with sterile liquid, yeast food fortified with amino acids, and sterile cotton pads to apply the liquid to specific locations on the pottery until saturation.

“Yeast are able to go dormant for extended periods of time in conditions of starvation and become active again in the presence of food,” Bowman said. “The resulting solution is incubated at 30-degrees [Celsius] and spread on solid yeast food with antibiotics and incubated until any yeast present begins to grow.”

The initial collection of the yeast spore took place at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Harvard Peabody Museum, Bowman said.

Serena Love, Egyptologist and heritage consultant in Queensland, Australia, was the primary contact with the museums and integral for gaining access to the artifacts that would contain the yeast spores.

Love said her background in archeology provided her access to the museums where the team was able to sample materials. There, they were able to learn more about how and where people cooked their food in the past through the artifacts that they used.

“The most surprising thing that came out of the project was that it worked. We didn’t know how it would work and the fact that we were able to make bread out of it was awesome,” Love said. “We were able to understand more about how these grains behave and cause us to understand more about ancient Egypt.”

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Food is what connects people from today and people from the past, which Love said is what made the project so interesting.

“We are bringing the taste of Egypt back alive and this is the actual vibrance of the past forward,” Love said.

The process took roughly six months to collect samples, analyze the DNA of the yeast, and bake the bread.

Creator of the Xbox and physicist Seamus Blackley calls himself an amateur “gastroegyptologist,” meaning he is interested in how the people of ancient Egypt made bread and other baked goods and often recreates many of those recipes.

“I’ve been baking bread for a long time. I’m a pretty serious bread baker,” Blackely said. “I would collect wild yeast and bake with that, but I was interested in baking bread the way they did in Roman or Egyptian times.”

Blackley said the idea came to him from beer made with ancient yeast using a similar process. As the ringleader of the team, Blackley added, he determined how everything would be carried out.

The collaboration between individuals from around the world was the result of a tweet by Blackley about the idea of making the bread. Love and Bowman initially became intrigued with the project when the pair saw the tweet.

“People with really different disciplines made the process possible and worthwhile,” Blackley said. “The most rewarding aspect of the project was meeting new people and tackling this crazy, unique project.”

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The most difficult aspect of the project, however, was producing time and funding, Love said.

“This project is privately funded, so it used a lot of our own money. Time was also an issue because everyone has other full-time jobs and lives,” Love said. “Genetic sampling and isolation also take a lot of time and resources.”

In light of his experience baking other breads over the years, Blackley said the taste and smell of this bread was incredible, and that modern bread and natural sourdough are very different. The bread made with this sample created a completely different flavor profile, he added.

“People have tried this in the past, but it didn’t turn out well, but people blamed it on bread being bad in the past, but that’s ridiculous,” Blackley said. “This culture worked well with the flour I used … never knowing modern flour. We literally revived the work of an ancient baker.”

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